"Everything changed when we stood up," says winemaker Kale Anderson about the primacy of sight among our five senses. "When our faces were near the ground, we pretty much smelled or tasted our way around. But as soon as we stood up on our hind legs, we began to emphasize our vision."
And so, as Anderson goes about making wine for Pahlmeyer Vineyards in Napa Valley, he attends to his wines' colors.
"One of the first impressions of wine is sight," he says. "It sets our expectations. And in the psychology of wine, that expectation can make how we appreciate the wine or not."
Anderson is talking about how deep, dark hues in a red wine can raise expectations of tasting deliciousness; how a glint of green in a white wine can indicate its youthful freshness; how an edge of brown in the color of any wine signifies age or senescence.
While the color of a wine may indicate certain things about it, we nonetheless still give primacy to its aromas and flavors. We keep our faces close to the ground, as it were, when appreciating wine. That is, we stick our noses and mouths into the bowl of the glass with nary a glance at it.
So let's take a look at wine.
Most of the color in any wine — white, pink or red, but especially the latter two — comes from the skins of the grapes that make it. "The pigments of wine are in the grapes," says Chris Howell, winemaker at Cain Vineyard and Winery, also in Napa Valley. "It's completely natural, just like color in berries or cherries, or green or black tea, or the color of leaves on trees."
We steep tea in very hot water to extract its color (and aromas and tannins); we do the same with grapes into wine. "It's very important," adds Howell, "to recognize that near or in the skins of the grapes are also the perfumes (of the wine)."
Different grapes at their maximum ripeness give different hues to their wines. Thick-skinned red (sometimes called "black") grapes such as syrah or malbec make for heavily pigmented wines. Not so with thinner-skinned red grapes such as pinot noir or nebbiolo. (The pulp and juice of all but a handful of the thousands of wine grapes is virtually colorless.)
That is why you should expect a malbec to be nearly opaque, as well as be wary of a pinot noir that looks like a syrah. That pinot probably was overextracted, hence less what it ought to be, less "pinot-y."
Likewise, if a dry riesling appears as gold as a chardonnay, that ain't right either (or vice versa, if a chardonnay is as light and ephemeral as a riesling, more bad news).
How to read the color in wine
The best way to see the various hues in a glass of wine is to hold the partially filled glass by the stem with the rim facing away from you, against a white surface, at a 45-degree angle, in natural or incandescent (non-neon) light, looking down through the bowl of the glass.
Don't do what is instinctive and hold the glass of wine up to the light. "Oh, it's a wonderful thing to do," says winemaker Chris Howell, "but it should be just for toasting the gods or the sun; it's not the best way to see color."
It's important, of course, to use a clear, smooth- and thin-walled glass, not one that is colored or etched. You can see color in various places, but three views are most important:
1 At the front edge, toward the lip of the glass, you'll see the least intense color, but also where the light indicates the purest hue.
2 In the thickest place, the center or the "heart," you'll see how opaque the wine is, giving you a sense of how dense the wine will be to your palate.
3 And at the edges, a set of two "parentheses," you can see glints of other colors such as green (in white wines) or blue (in young red wines).
- The hues at the far edge will also indicate age (or, worse, spoilage). Over time, red wines tend to age from purple- or blue-tinged red, to garnet or ruby, to brick red, to finally a tawny or oranged brown. White wines go from hay- or light yellow-colored, to golden and, finally, to something like the same in red wines, a tawny brown. At either far end, a red or white wine is probably no longer enjoyable.
- Some red wines such as barbera or zinfandel remain purple-red for much of their lives; others such as nebbiolo begin and remain "middle-aged" in color — garnet or red-brick; still others such as pinot noir ought never be intensely dark.
Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.