Our first contact with wine is visual and a lot can be revealed about a wine from its appearance.
Evaluating the appearance of a wine is the first stage of three employed when tasting wine (the others being aroma and taste).
A wine’s appearance is made up of four areas: the colour, clarity, the surface and meniscus, and the legs. We’ll look at each of these areas in detail below.
The Colour of Wine
When wine is poured the first thing we notice is its colour. The best way to get a good look at the colour is to hold the glass against a white background or to the palm of your hand. Colour is evaluated by hue and intensity.
The words used to describe a wine's hue often come from the world of precious stones, metals, flowers, and fruit - ruby, topaz, gold, copper, rose, violet, lemon, cherry, etc.
Intensity helps us define the hue in more detail - there are so many shades of colour it's important to be more specific. Intensity can vary between pale and very dark, moving through light, dark, deep, intense, and profound. We could even use words like poor, soft, and weak, which are already indications of quality.
Once we've established the colour we can look at clarity. The clarity of the wine should be perfect - you shouldn't see any particles floating in suspension or any residue from finings or dead yeast. If these are present we could describe the wine as cloudy, hazy, or opalescent. These are all signs of poor winemaking and generally indicate the wine won't be that great.
Just to confuse matters, a cloudy wine may not necessarily be a bad sign! Young unfiltered or partially filtered wines will have a slight haze to them, which is entirely normal. It's also normal to find deposits in old wines.
Wine Colour Palette
Red wines: peony, light ruby, dark ruby, vermillion, garnet, deep garnet, carmine, deep purple. When aged: brick red, russet, chestnut, mahogany, coffee.
White wines: pale yellow with a hint of green, pale yellow, lemon, pale gold, golden yellow, straw gold. When matured: old gold, bronze, copper, amber, mahogany, coffee.
What Appearance Can Tell Us
The colour of the wine is full of information that, with practice and time, can be read like a book - it gives us clues as to the grape variety, vintage, vine yield, condition of the grapes, the age of the wine, and vinification.
VARIETY AND VINTAGE The substances that give the wine its colour come from pigments found in grape skins. There are few pigments in white grapes, but they are more prevalent in red grapes, with different intensities depending on the variety. For example, a wine made with Gamay grapes has a ruby colour, whereas a wine made with Cabernet Sauvignon is deep garnet in colour. Red wines of the same type will tend to have a less intense hue if the weather has been cooler when compared to a hotter year. White wines will tend to have a deeper colour when the grapes were harvested in hotter years.
VINE YIELD Colour intensity is also determined by the yield obtained from the vines. The higher the yield (the more bunches on the vine) the less concentrated the grapes resulting in a lighter colour. With lower yields, the wine gains more intensity. Old vines, which often bear fewer grapes, almost always produce a wine with a pronounced colour.
GRAPE CONDITION If a winemaker selects grapes that are spoiled, the wine will have less colour intensity regardless of the variety or yield.
WINE AGE The colour of white wine intensifies with age, whereas a red will fade. Young reds have a slight blue tinge that can produce a purple hue in their overall appearance. As the red ages, it will acquire shades of deep orange as the pigments and tannins start to yellow. White wines contain fewer tannins so their colour develops slowly with age from shades of green and yellow to gold.
VINIFICATION When red wines undergo long maceration more of the pigments in the grape skins are extracted. The use of new barrels will intensify the wine’s hue. Both white and red wines will have a darker shade when matured in barrels compared to the same wine that has been stored in stainless steel tanks.
When tasting sparkling wines we also need to look at the froth and bubbles. When first poured there should be a good amount of foam forming on the top that’s long lasting and made of small bubbles. Once this foam subsides there should remain a ring of bubbles adhering to the side of the glass. These bubbles should also be small and rise from the bottom of the glass in columns. If this ring of bubbles is missing and there are large bubbles that burst immediately at the surface you’re looking at a low quality wine. The type of glass will have an impact on the formation of bubbles and froth - a flute glass is preferable when tasting sparkling wines.
The Surface and Meniscus
To observe the surface you'll need to place yourself directly above the glass. The surface is judged by its brilliance and the way it catches the light. A wine that has clarity issues will display a matte, dull, flat, or lusterless surface. For wines without clarity issues, you'll notice a brilliant, lustrous, luminous, or intense surface.
Keep in mind those wines that have not been filtered. A filtered wine will lose brilliance but gain in colour intensity.
This applies to red wines. The outside edge (rim), known as the meniscus, can be very revealing. At the rim, the wine is at its thinnest and its true colour is more apparent.
If you see touches of blue, purple, or bold red it suggests the wine is young. If you see shades of orange, terracotta, or brick red it suggests the wine is old.
Compare these colours in relation to the year printed on the wine label. If you're drinking a young wine and the colours around the rim are suggesting an old wine it's likely that what you're about to drink won't be all that good. You could describe the colour of this wine as old, tired, or impaired. The same is true for old wines that display signs of young wine in the rim.
Hold your wine up to the light and give it a good swirl around. When you stop you'll notice a transparent liquid that slips down the glass slower than the wine. These are the legs and give an indication of the wine's alcohol and/or sugar content.
Well-defined, viscous legs that flow slowly down the glass indicate a wine rich in alcohol and/or residual sugars. We would describe these wines as thick, syrupy, viscous, or unctuous.
Wines with more fluid legs that flow more quickly would be described as watery, liquid, and fluid.
Legs provide an indication of the wine's personality.