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Dear Dr. Vinny,
How can "dry" be a definite term when the perception of sweetness varies (sometimes greatly) from person to person?
—Burton E., Salem, S.C.
When it comes to wine, dry is the opposite of sweet. A truly dry wine is made when all of the natural sugar in grapes converts to alcohol during fermentation. Sweet wine, on the other hand, is sweet because all of the sugar didn't convert. The unfermented sugar left in the wine is called residual sugar. Wines that are considered "off-dry" have a moderate amount of residual sugar.
You're right that sensitivity to sweetness varies among us, although most people begin to perceive sweetness at concentrations of about 0.5 percent. It gets tricky because some wines that are fermented dry can give the impression of sweetness. The sweet sensation comes not from residual sugar, but from the taste of ripe grapes or from the sweet vanilla notes from an oak barrel. The sensation of sweetness is also influenced by other factors in a wine, such as acidity, tannins, alcohol and glycerin.
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