Tasting wine is an important factor when you’re learning about the world of wine and there’s more to tasting than just drinking wine! Using more than just your tastebuds is vital to learning everything you can about the wine you’re sampling. Looking at the wine can give you many clues about what it is, where it’s from and how old it is, before you even smell or taste the wine. In this section of Wine Tasting Basics, you’ll learn about the Appearance of Red Wine and how deductive tasting can educate you about wine.
Wine Tasting Basics: Lighting and Background
A well lit room is important for technical tastings. Being able to see the clarity, colour and depth of a wine can only be accomplished if the lighting is good. If you can use natural lighting, that’s the best way to see the wine. Taste during daylight hours if you can, in a room that allows in plenty of natural light.
Taste at a table with a white table cloth or lay a white sheet of paper on the tabletop. A white background is important to judge the colour correctly. If that white paper has black lines or black writing on it, that’s even better because you can judge the intensity of the colour — whether the wine is pale, medium or deep.
Wine Tasting Basics: How To Hold the Wine Glass
In a clean, well-rinsed, polished wine glass, pour about 2 ounces of the wine.
Tilt the glass over the paper at about a 45 degree angle so that the wine forms a pool of varying depth. Using the white paper as a background, look down through the wine.
1. Appearance of Wine: Clarity
Clarity of the wine falls into two categories: clear or hazy.
The first characteristic of appearance to take note of is the clarity. Is the wine clear or hazy? It’s that simple. Hazy, cloudy wine could be a sign that the wine is unhealthy or “off.”
If the wine has floaty things in it, take note. Is it natural sediment or a foreign object (like food maybe?) Maybe the glassware wasn’t cleaned properly or the cork broke and there are chunks of cork floating in the wine. Neither of which will hurt you, but doesn’t make for a great wine drinking experience.
2. Appearance of Wine: Intensity
Intensity of colour falls into three categories: pale, medium or deep.
Compare the colour at the edge or rim, where the wine is shallow, to the colour in the deeper centre. Sometimes the wine colour and intensity will express itself differently in these two areas. Does the colour and depth of the centre go through to the rim or does it get lighter as it moves toward the edge? If the colour is dark and opaque through to the edge, your wine is deep. If there is a large, paler rim with a darker centre, your wine is likely medium in intensity.
If your white paper has black lines or writing on it, can you see them very clearly through the wine? If so, the wine is pale. Is the wine so dark that you see only the colour of wine and not anything on the paper? If so, you would call that deep. If you see a hint of what is on the paper, your wine colour is medium.
These observations about appearance can give you clues about the grape variety and/or the age of the wine. For example, Petite Sirah will typically be deep and Pinot Noir is pale to medium. Knowing the appearance characteristics of different grape varieties and using your appearance observations may help you deduce what you’re drinking before you even take the first sip. Typically wines will lose colour when they age — the colour actually falls out of the wine! So paler wines may indicate the wine has some age.
Wine Appearance Chart
3. Appearance of Wine: Colour (Hue)
Colour of wine falls into four categories: purple, ruby, garnet, tawny.
If the wine is very dense you can get a better idea of its colour or hue by looking at the rim. A young red wine may show a purplish tinge at the rim and be more opaque, whereas an older red wine may be more transparent overall and the colour moves from vibrant purple to a more brick / tawny colour.
Different grape varieties generally have different colours. For example, Pinot Noir should be a beautiful ruby to garnet colour while Malbec is usually intense purple to ruby in colour. An aged Pinot Noir will be garnet to tawny and an Aged Malbec will be likely be ruby.
How can this help you? Let’s say you’re not participating in a blind tasting and you already know what the wine is. The label on the bottle tells you it’s a California Pinot Noir. You look at the colour of the wine and see that it’s a medium to deep purple-ruby colour. What does that tell you? Pinot Noir should not look purple plus it’s a thin skinned grape so it shouldn’t be deep in intensity, so your powers of deduction tell you that this particular wine likely has been blended with another grape variety that is giving off purple hues and deeper intensity. So although it may be primarily Pinot Noir (enough to legally put it on the front label), the winemakers has probably blended in Syrah and/or Petite Sirah to deepen the colour and flavour intensity and give it a more vibrant, fruity look or taste.
Appearance of Wine: Other Observations — Legs
What does it mean when a wine has “nice legs” ?
Alcohol by volume (abv) and sugar content are factors in the wine’s viscosity, which is expressed in the character of the wine’s “legs” or “tears.” These are the rivulets of wine that form when a tilted glass is brought to the vertical. Swirl the glass and let the wine settle. As the wine flows down the side of the glass, traces of liquid form and dissipate at a rate dependent on the alcohol and sugar content.
Contrary to popular belief, there really is no such thing as a wine with “nice legs.” Legs or tears have nothing to do with the quality (or niceness) of a wine. the only thing legs tell you is viscosity which relates to sugar and/or alcohol, but not quality. If someone says to you “this wine has nice legs,” be polite and don’t correct them — be satisfied in the knowledge that you know what that really means!
Wine Appearance Chart
Appearance of Wine: Other Observations — Sediment
Sediment is a natural part of wine and should not be considered a fault. Many winemakers are moving toward not fining or filtering their wines in order to preserve the integrity of flavour and quality of the wine. For this reason, you may find natural particles in the wine that have not been filtered out.
Aged wines may also contain sediment. The tannins and colour fall out of wine as it gets older. This is a natural process and not at all harmful to you. In fact, it give the wine character.
In either case you don’t want to drink the sediment. Although not harmful, it may not be pleasant to drink. It would be like eating a few coffee grounds in your morning coffee! This is when you would want to very slowly decant the wine in order to avoid drinking the sediment. Carefully and slowly decant the wine so as not to disturb the sediment. When you get closer to the bottom of the bottle, view the neck of the bottle through a light as you’re pouring and stop when you start to see sediment in the neck. You may miss out on about a 1/4 of a glass of wine by doing this, but remember it’s quality, not quantity.