The 2nd installment of the introduction to wine tasting series is here and we are talking all about wine appearance. Some people define appearance as just the intensity of the wine, but we’re including everything you can see when you look at a glass of wine- color, intensity, and viscosity. To accurately evaluate the appearance of wine, it’s important to be in a well-lit space without harsh lights shining directly at you and to have a white background (a solid white piece of paper will work). Ready? Let’s go.
Why does it matter?
Now, you might be asking yourself what’s the point of worrying about appearance? Everyone knows that the smell and taste are important, but who cares what the wine looks like?
It may not be too important if you’re casually wine tasting with friends and know what you’re drinking. However, in a blind tasting scenario, the appearance of a wine can help you narrow down what you’re drinking. If you have an unfamiliar wine, you can also get a lot of clues about how it will taste from the appearance. Finally, if you look at a wine and see haziness or bits floating in it, it could be a sign the wine has been stored improperly. We’ll get into that another time, but it is important, especially if you’re drinking a higher priced bottle.
What do you see and what does it mean?
Color is probably the most obvious characteristic you will see. You can get a few different pieces of information from the color. The primary is the type of grape. First and foremost- is it red, white, or pink? Once you’ve got that one down, you have to ask what shade it is. If it’s red, this will break down into purple, ruby, garnet, or tawny. Here’s what each of those means:
- Purple has a bluish tinge
- Ruby is a pretty true red
- Garnet is red with a little brown
- Tawny is mostly brown with a reddish tint
White wines are described as lemon, gold, and amber.
- Straw has a very light yellow tinge
- Lemon is predominantly yellow without noticeable browning
- Gold has just a hint orange or brown
- Amber has a noticeable brown tinge
You can go much deeper into color of the wine, with the specific shades of each, but we won’t get into that right now. The broader ranges of color are plenty unless you plan to become a professional wine judge.
So what causes wine to be a certain color? The primary influence is the grape. Each varietal creates a wine that has a certain range of colors, and some even have “tells” that are highly indicative of the grape. Malbec is famous for its bluish rim and is easy to spot in a blind tasting as a result.
Grape varietal is not the only determining factor. How the wine is made and its age also influence the color. Oak barrels are a common way to mature some white and many red wines. Oak is not airtight, so the wine is exposed to some oxygen while it matures, which makes white wine more yellow or gold and red wine more brown.
Age is another factor that contributes to the color of wine. As wines age, they’re exposed to tiny bits of oxygen through the cork. This oxygen interacts with the tannin in the wine (yes, even in white) and causes the color to change. Just like with oak barrels, red wines become browner and white wines become more yellow and then gold.
When you evaluate intensity, you’re seeing how highly pigmented the color of the wine is. You can do this in two ways:
1. Tilt the wine glass at a 45° angle and look at the liquid from above to see how far the color extends from the center of the wine glass. If the rim, or edge, of the color is wide and very pale, the intensity is pale. If the color extends right up to the rim, it’s deep.
2. For red wines, you can leave the glass on the table and look down into the center. If you can see the table (or your finger) through the wine, the intensity is pale. If you can’t see anything through it, the intensity is deep.
In both cases, anything in between pale and deep is medium.
The intensity is primarily influenced by two things: the grape varietal and (for red wine) how long the skins were left in contact with the grapes. Since the juice is not left in contact with the skin for white wines, the grape varietal will have the primary influence over how intense the color gets.
Red wine intensity is a combination of the varietal and the amount of time the skins were left in contact with the juice.
The intensity will help you determine how concentrated the flavors will be before you even try the wine. If the wine is very pale, the wine will often have a fairly light flavor and body. If it’s very highly pigmented, the flavors are often more intense and the body is fuller. Pinot Noir is a classic example of this. It’s a thin skinned grape that makes light to medium bodied wines. The flavors are often fairy fresh red fruit and the wine is a fairly light ruby. Syrah, on the other hand, makes a full-bodied, somewhat intense red wine and is very highly pigmented.
Aging also affects the intensity of the wine. White wines deepen and their color looks richer, while red wines lose their pigment and get lighter.
When you swirl your wine around the glass, wine droplets cling to and run down the side. These are alternately referred to as tears, legs, and sheets- we’re going to use legs because that’s the most widely recognized. How quickly the legs run down the side of the glass indicates the viscosity. A lot of people believe this is indicative of the wine’s body. In reality, it tells only part of the story. Viscosity indicates the alcohol or sweetness level of the wine which are part of determining a wine’s body.
To determine the viscosity, give your wine a good swirl (without sloshing!) and watch to see how quickly the legs move down the side of the glass. If they move very quickly, the wine is most likely dry with lower alcohol. If the wine is sweet or has high alcohol, the droplets will be thicker and will therefore move more slowly down the side of the glass.
Are you ready to go out and conquer the appearance side of evaluating wine? I certainly hope so. Next week we’ll discuss aroma, so make sure to check back then.
If you missed the first article, make sure to check it out for a summary of wine tasting steps by searching for "Introduction to Wine Tasting" on this site or on The Sugar Vine's website.