Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dry Wine: A Paradox?

I have always thought the use of the word dry to mean a wine that is not sweet was a rather odd choice. Dry can also be used to mean the absence of alcohol: the town has remained dry since prohibition. There is also the inescapable paradox that is born out of calling a liquid dry; not to mention the fact that said liquid has alcohol in it. Why did the person who first coined this word not content his or her self with the word that is used to signify a sugarless Champaign: brut? In brut there is no inherent paradox of connoting a liquid that is not liquid.  But I digress, given that wine is a liquid one would assume that the error of believing a wine to literally be dry should never present itself; this is not the case.
A customer, who was promptly told by the most senior staff member that she knew little of wine and a different staffer would be better suited to answer his questions, was about to present to me the most confounding misunderstanding of a word that I have ever encountered.  The fact that the staffer so quickly wiped her hands of this customer should have been a dead give away that the encounter was going to be problematic: she knows plenty about wine.

The entire meeting betwixt this customer and I could not have been more than a half hour or so.  He was looking for two wines: a white and a red.  He wanted a sweet white and a sweet red. I explained to him that there are very few reds that are actually sweet most are off-dry at best and even that is pretty rare.  He seemed to understand this and seemed to understand what sweet meant; he did not seem to understand that dry was an antonym of sweet.  He told me that it wasn’t too important whether the wine was sweet or not but he didn’t want a dry wine. There are really only two options concerning the matter of sweet and dry: a thing can either be sweet or dry there is no other option. I was unsure of how I could supply this paradoxical fellow with a wine that is both with and without sugar.

I don’t really think much of it when people are unsure of what a wine term means. The wine industry seems to go out of their way to make things confusing for the consuming public: it gives wine that extra bit of pretentious cache. But this man confused a term to a degree that I did not think was even possible. To him dry literally meant dry. Dry wine, he explained, dries out his throat at some point in the middle of the night. Most people would probably call this dehydration due to excessive drinking a.k.a. a hangover.

The only other possible explanation I can think of is that he was confusing the term dry with the feeling one gets from drinking a wine with a lot of tannin; which is actually a dry feeling in ones mouth. But since he was experiencing dryness in the middle of the night I’m going to have to assume he was actually just talking about a hangover. It is curious that the term dry was never appropriated by the drying sensation tannin causes, instead one just says a wine is tannic or high in tannin.

So where could this bizarre use of the term dry have come from?  Well a few minutes of research on google as well as searching through dictionaries and wine books has lead me to the following conclusions: it comes from Latin, or it refers to the drying feeling that is associated with drinking an astringent wine.

From the Latin word siccus we have the word sec in French, secco in Italian and seco in Spanish all of which mean dry in the wine sense (the normal sense too, well at least for French, I don’t know Italian or Spanish so I can’t really speak to that).  All of these countries are among the historic giants of wine production.  Siccus meant: dry, thirsty, sober, temperate.  Now this is pure speculation on my part but it seems possible that the word sec, secco or seco was appropriated for non-sweet wines because the acidity, having no counter-balance of sweetness, would have made the drinker of a wine thirsty for more while at the same time alleviating the drinkers thirst. 

A wine that is sweet balances out the acidity making the acidity less apparent which results in making the wine less mouth watering.  Maybe the word siccus which later came to be sec was actually being used in the sense of both producing and reducing thirst.  Highly acidic drinks tend to quench one’s thirst but also make one want to drink more, think of lemonade on a hot summer day.  This may be stretching the term siccus but maybe it was originally intended to mean a wine that would satisfy and/or produce thirst.  As such we can see why a wine that is high in acid but low in sugar may be called siccus, or sec ect… it both produces and quenches thirst. 

As far as I understand English has as at it’s root, at least partially, some version of French.  From here it seems that English just copied French term for a wine without sugar but with a completely different sounding word that means the exact same thing: dry, which is equivalent to sec in every way.

The other explanation I actually encountered rather than just came up with myself, although someone must have theorized it at one point too so who knows if it has anymore credibility than my theory.  The theory suggests dry was used to describe a wine without sugar because back in the day, when wine making was more crude, wine that was without sugar would have been perceptibly more astringent and this astringent feeling was associated with a dryness of the mouth.  A sweet wine would have relieved this astringency to a certain degree making a wine off-dry or sweet. I suppose this sounds slightly credible but given that sec, secco and seco are all derived from siccus which can mean thirsty this theory sounds less likely. But if this theory is true the customer may have been using the term dry in this sense, in which case he was just using a much older definition of dry then I had realized.

As for the term brut which refers to a dry Champagne there is good reason the no one copied its usage in meaning a sugarless wine.  Dry was used to describe a sugarless wine for hundreds of years before Champagne was even invented.  Presumably the creation of Champagne would have predated any term used to describe Champagne including brut.  Either way the Champagnois must have  realized the paradoxical nature of using the word dry to describe a liquid.  Those Champagnois sure are smart!

Desert picture from:

Champagne picture from:

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