Beyond Red, White and Rosé: Wine Colour Decoded
Much can be gleaned from a glance at a wine, including its age, texture, alcohol level and sometimes grape varietal. You’ll never look at a glass of wine the same way…
Article by: Lettie Teague – Wall Street Journal
In the 2006 movie “Local Color,” a great but long-forgotten painter reviews the work of his young protégé and derides the clouds he has painted. “Clouds are not so white,” he says, comparing the student’s efforts to “flying rocks.” The painter bids him to look at the sky anew. The boy dutifully gazes upward and this time sees that clouds are not just white but all shades of pink and yellow and purple. A similar revelation can take place when an oenophile truly examines a glass of wine.
There is much to learn about a wine from its appearance, even beyond its colour, and yet most drinkers—including myself—regularly skip over this aspect. It’s one of the rare instances when looks seem to count for very little. I can’t remember the last time I discussed the way a wine looked, as opposed to the way it tasted or smelled, with my oenophile friends.
The information that can be gleaned from a mere glance includes a wine’s age, texture, alcohol level and possibly even grape variety. As the late, great Bordeaux enologist Professor Émile Peynaud noted in his seminal work, “The Taste of Wine,” a wine’s appearance is every bit as important as its taste and smell: “The wine-taster”s eye must be able to interpret the slightest visual clue and it should be as carefully critical of appearance as his nose of odors,” he wrote in a chapter devoted to the visual aspect of wine.
The most basic fact about a wine is, of course, its colour: red, white or rosé. But a red wine isn’t just red. It can be crimson, ruby, garnet or cherry. Sometimes it’s even a bit brown or orange. A white wine is never truly white. It may be almost colourless, gold, slightly green or yellow. Rosé wine comes in a great range of colour, from pale rose to salmon, peach, even vivid pink.
Rosé is the only wine whose colour I’ve heard being much discussed. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what constitutes the proper shade. Drinkers will debate this in a way that few dispute the “right” colour of a white or red. “Nothing bright pink,” declares my friend Sue, a designer, who is certain that a wine of this colour is likely to be commercial and cheap. Like many, she prefers a pale salmon colour.
Aside from debating the perceived superiority of pale salmon rosé (often called Provençal, although many such wines are made far from France), most wine drinkers struggle to put into words what they see in their glass. According to Laura Maniec, master sommelier, wine educator and owner of Corkbuzz Restaurant and Wine Bars, “A nbso online casino reviews lot of people don’t know how to communicate” much about a wine’s appearance. This is particularly true of men, Ms. Maniec added. When it comes to classifying wine colour, they are more reluctant than women to specify a particular shade, i.e., ruby or garnet. I wonder if that’s because women have more experience with nuanced colour names, as a trip to a cosmetic counter will prove. I have four shades of red lipstick that have four different names.
Sometimes wine drinkers, including seasoned professionals, overlook the visual aspect of a wine because they are considering other components, such as taste and aroma. Mary Ewing-Mulligan, president of the International Wine Center, in New York, and a master of wine, told me that she frequently has to stop and remind herself to look at a wine. “Usually, I’m already onto the nose and tasting it,” she said. If Ms. Ewing-Mulligan does forget, she might look at it later, although she admitted finding more pleasure in the look of the glass than the wine inside. “The appearance of a wine is not critical to its enjoyment,” she opined. “You look at wine for information, but you don’t look at it for pleasure.”
I think that one can influence the other. Not surprisingly, one’s preference for a specific wine taste or style can heighten one’s appreciation of a particular color. For example, a certain shade of red wine makes my friend Sue very happy. It can’t have overtones of blue, as that might mean the wine “tastes of cherries,” which she can’t abide. Another friend favours white wines in a shade of pale yellow, and unsurprisingly, she’s not a fan of white wines aged in oak, which are closer to gold in tone.
‘Just by looking closely at a wine’s colour, you can determine its age, texture, alcohol level and sometimes grape variety.’
Perhaps Ms. Ewing-Mulligan focuses more on the informational aspect of appearances because she teaches her International Wine Center students the “Systematic Approach to Tasting” created by the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust). Her students must learn a form of analysis that increases in complexity as they rise through the ranks. While beginning students are asked to note the basic facts about a wine colour’s intensity (pale, medium, deep), more-advanced students are asked whether or not the wine has petillance (small bubbles) or “legs,” the droplets that run down the inside of a glass when the wine is poured. Students also look for deposits such as tartrates and other sediment.
Beginner wine drinkers often fixate upon a wine’s legs (also called tears) either because they’re easy to see or the word is provocative. Never mind that they aren’t legs at all but streaks formed by the evaporation of alcohol. The higher the alcohol, the slower the evaporation and the more viscous the wine.
Petillance is defined as a slight sparkle caused by the accidental occurrence or deliberate addition of carbon dioxide. In the first case, the wine might not have completed fermentation before it was bottled, and this is considered a flaw. In the second situation, the producer might have injected the wine with CO2 to give it a bit of youthful fizz. Both versions give the wine a subtly bubbly appearance and an effervescence on the tongue.
The intensity of wine colour may indicate a particular type of grape. A red wine made from such tannic grapes as Cabernet or Syrah will be a dark, densely hued red, while a red wine made from thin-skinned, less-tannic grapes like Gamay or Pinot Noir will be much more transparent. Colour can also relate to age. Cabernet will become lighter with age, transitioning from crimson to brick to reddish orange. A red wine that is close to brown is likely oxidized.
The inverse is true for a white wine, which morphs from translucent, pale-green gold in its youth to deep gold in its old age. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. A sweet white wine, young or old, can be gold-colored, thanks to a higher sugar content and longer extraction time (contact with grape skins during fermentation). A white wine fermented and aged in oak will always be darker than a wine fermented in stainless steel. Compare a pale greenish Chablis, which is made in stainless, to a golden Napa Chardonnay, and you’ll see what I mean.
I know the value of examining the visual aspect of wine, but I admit to ignoring it more often than not. And when I do look more intently, it’s usually in response to a possible flaw (e.g., a young white wine that is a deep gold color and perhaps oxidized).
Like Ms. Ewing-Mulligan, I tend to look more at the glass than the wine, though in my case this is largely thanks to my father, who spent years in the glass business and taught my sister and me to examine our glasses carefully. The shape, style and origin of our wine glasses were considered much more important than the wine. Then again, the wine inside wasn’t particularly good.
I do plan to regard my wine more fully in the future, not just to examine it for flaws but to fully enjoy the aesthetic experience. After all, there is great pleasure to be found in gazing at something that is both complex and beautiful. As Professor Peynaud wrote, “A wine’s colour has been described as its face, in which age and character can be read.”