Meet Me in the Middle
Skipping the semi-dry whites? You’re missing out
I can see them doing it.
At our tasting rooms, the white section of the menu is arranged by sweetness level, and subdivided into “Dry,” “Semi-Dry,” and “Sweet.” Guests’ eyes begin moving down the column, taking in the dry whites ... and then skip directly over the semi-dry section to peruse the sweets. It’s almost as if there’s a black hole in the middle of the menu.
Often, our customers are either searching specifically for a dry white, like chardonnay or pinot grigio, or a sweet white, like Late Harvest Riesling. Few people come in on a quest to find the next great semi-dry white. But there are plenty to be had, if only you’re willing to begin edging in from the extremes.
When guests ask me for a recommendation, if they’re open to experimentation, I often steer them smack dab in the center, to the semi-drys.
Let’s get back to basics for a second. In wine, dryness is the absence of sweetness. A wine becomes dry when the winemaker allows the yeast to consume all of the sugar during fermentation, leaving little or no residual sweetness behind.
A wine will retain sweetness if the winemaker halts the fermentation process before the yeast consumes of all of the sugar, or if the winemaker adds sugar (or, sometimes, reserve wine or juice) back into the wine post-fermentation.
A semi-dry wine is just as it sounds: a wine with some residual sugar, but not as much as one considered truly sweet.
Opinions seem to differ on what sugar level, exactly, constitutes the boundaries of dry, sweet, and semi-dry. Wine Spectator, for example, defines dry as less than 10 grams of residual sugar per liter, sweet as more than 30 grams per liter, and semi-dry or off-dry as anything in between. Wine Folly, meanwhile, declares the sweet threshold at 35 grams per liter.
European Union Regulation 753/2002 states that up to 4 grams per liter can be labeled as dry; up to 12, medium-dry; up to 45, medium; and more than 45, sweet. However, the edict notes that this threshold can shift slightly based on acidity levels. And, of course, these rules don’t apply to non-European winemakers.
(Dryness terms also differ wildly for sparkling wines — but we’ll save that for another day.
To qualify for the semi-dry white category of the annual Michigan Wine Competition in East Lansing, wines must be non-dessert category contenders with 1 percent residual sugar — 10 grams per liter — or above, or be a Riesling submitted under the “medium dry” or “medium sweet” sweetness scale level, says Jenelle Jagmin, promotion specialist for the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council.
I have served as a judge the last several years for the competition, and those semi-dry whites have consistently been among my favorite categories for evaluation. They’re lively, they’re “pretty,” they often have great aromatics, and they’re endlessly quaffable. They’re not as austere as some of the dry whites, but not as cloying as some of the sweet whites. They are, to me, often “just right.
My favorite grape in the semi-dry field tends to be, first and foremost, riesling. It’s not shocking, since it’s the most prevalent vinifera grape in Michigan, and one that thrives here. It’s a grape that many newer Michigan wine drinkers have only had late harvest-style — sweet. But it’s a beautiful, versatile grape that can be produced in the complete spectrum, from bone dry to super sweet.
“For me, some of the best semi-dry wines are made from riesling,” agrees Bill MacDonald, who grows wine grapes in Northern Michigan. “When the winemaker gets the sugar/acid balance just right, it's magical.”
Other grapes that shine in the semi-dry style include vidal blanc, vignoles, and gewürztraminer. And, of course, there are plenty of semi-dry white blends to be had, with the combinations enhancing the best components of each of the grapes.
Cristin Hosmer loves semi-dry whites due to their “balance, mouthfeel, and versatility.” She’s certainly tasted her share over the years, working as assistant winemaker at Bel Lago Vineyards and Winery and a consultant at Mari Vineyards, among other positions in the Michigan wine industry. She’s also married to Chateau Chantal/Hawthorne Vineyards winemaker Brian Hosmer.
“I love medium-dry riesling, gewürztraminer, and blends of resistant and vinifera varieties,” she says. “There are so many great producers; my favorites would be Bel Lago, Left Foot Charley, and Mari.”
The Hosmers are also collaborating with the Rigan family on what they call the 1855 Project, an initiative to produce “unique and experimental wines” from their family-run vineyards in Northern Michigan. One of their prized whites arising from the project, Initiation White, is a semi-dry blend made from riesling, traminette, vidal blanc, NY81, “and a few other odds and ends,” says Cristin Hosmer. “It’s delicious!”
“Semi-dry whites are nice because they can take the edge off a slightly acidic wine — of which there are many in a cool climate region such as northwest Michigan,” says Jim Rink, co-owner of now-shuttered Boskydel Vineyard; his father, Bernie, was among grape-growing pioneers on the Leelanau Peninsula. “They are versatile and can stand alone as an aperitif or be drunk with a meal.”
Rink says some of his recent favorites include Black Star Farms’ 2016 Arcturos Semi-Dry Riesling and Gewürztraminers from Brengman Brothers and Left Foot Charley.
“As most, I started drinking wines with very sweet rieslings,” says Jonathan Rose, “tour maestro” for Traverse City Wine and Beer Tours. “As my palate has grown and developed, I've began to truly enjoy far more wine types — especially a good semi-dry white.”
His current favorite: Hawthorne Vineyards’ Semi-Dry Gewürztraminer.
Semi-dry whites have proven to be excellent pairing partners for dinners we host occasionally at Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Rooms with our neighbors at Khom Fai: Thai Dining Experience. The hint of sweetness in semi-dry rieslings and gewürztraminers perfectly offsets the spice and heat in the Thai dishes. I also love them with salads, cheeses, and light, summery fare.
But they don’t necessarily need food; Brighton native Lauren Belles says she enjoys them perfectly fine on their own. She calls semi-dry whites her “preference for sipping on the patio, dock, boat, and while getting some rays during the Michigan summer.”
“They don’t need to be paired with food — chilled is the only prerequisite — and [they] can be a happy medium for dry and sweet wine friends,” Belles says.
What are your favorite semi-dry whites from Michigan? Tell us in the comments!
Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier and co-founder of MichiganByTheBottle.com, a website and online community that promotes the entire Michigan wine industry. She’s also co-owner of Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room, tasting rooms operated in partnership with multiple Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township, Royal Oak, and Auburn Hills. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.