Posted by miles on 2004-09-16 21:36:48
[The Pedestrian Wine Drinker]
|One of the first things to consider when tasting a wine is its appearance. It's rare nowadays to find a wine whose looks tell you much. At one time, a dull, cloudy wine might reveal a badly-made wine; now most winemakers use modern techniques that prevent visible problems. But it could happen, so we keep considering it as a factor. Besides, it's fun. Wine is pretty, so it's pleasant to look at, especially if the color is one of your favorites. And you can get clues about the grapes and the wine from the color, although those clues tend to be read mainly by people with more wine experience than your humble narrator.|
The most obvious visual element of wine is color. For people of a certain age…and I'm dating myself here, I’m sure…the pinnacle of color experience was the 64-count box of Crayola crayons. It was the biggest box of crayons available, with absolutely the widest possible selection of colors. It also gave children everywhere (and the adults they grew into) a common reference when discussing color. This is important because color is often experienced subjectively. (Think of the old folk tune with the lyric, "lavender's blue, dilly dilly, lavender's green…." Which is it? Blue or green? It looks like light purple to me.) But everyone knew exactly what color you were talking about if you could link it to that box of crayons: carnation pink, raw umber, sky blue (my personal favorite), cornflower blue, that shade of flesh unlike any actual human flesh that ever was, but exactly the same shade as a band-aid.
If only we could use that system to talk about a wine's color. But alas, wine and crayons just don't intersect well. If your wine is the color of a burnt sienna crayon, or even a lemon yellow or red one, you probably need to get a new wine. Personally, I think that Swarovski crystals come in a great array of colors perfect for comparison to the colors of wine. But they're just not enough of a shared point of reference to be useful. No, we seem to be stuck using ordinary color terms and hoping that we mean the same thing by them. Common color terms for white wines include, from light to dark, straw, yellow, gold, topaz, amber, even caramel, and some may have a hint of green. Common color terms for reds include cherry, garnet, ruby, brick, and plum. An older red will begin to turn brick or even tawny, especially around the edges of the glass. Try to view your wine against a white background if possible, and note the different nuances of color between the rim and the full bowl of the glass.
Another visual aspect of wine is clarity. Is your wine clear and lovely, like colored glass? Chances are that it is, since this is one area where modern winemaking removes the vast majority of problems. If your wine is cloudy, you may have gotten a rare less-than-perfect wine, and you can experience for yourself why we rejoice at having conquered this phenomenon with filtering and better fermenting techniques. On the other hand, you may find that your wine is generally clear and bright, but with the tiniest bit of a hazy quality on close inspection. This is not cause for alarm, but rather a sign that you likely have an unfiltered wine. Such a wine will have a small amount of sediment in the bottle, demanding proper decanting for the best drinking experience, but this is not a flaw. Many experts believe that the elements that get filtered out of wine add flavor and subtle qualities that are missing from the many filtered wines today. So instead of being afraid if your wine is slightly hazy, enjoy the chance to experience an unfiltered wine in all its full flavor and character.
A third visual property to look out for in a wine is "legs." When you swirl your wine around your glass (you are swirling, aren't you?), the wine will of course go down the sides of the glass when you're done. Some wines will sheet on their trip down, but some will drip down in little drop-sized tracks more thickly than the wine on either side, like tears rolling down an already-wet face. It's a subtle effect, but noticeable. So what does it mean when your wine has legs? Just that the alcohol content is high. The alcohol level changes the wine's body and affects the way the wine clings to the side of the glass. Mostly, you'll sound like you know what you're talking about when you say that your wine has legs, as long as your wine actually does have them. They're easy to spot, so try not to bluff your way on that one.
Always try to begin by considering the look of your wine. It's tradition, and it does give you a few little clues about what you are about to drink. More important, it forces you to slow down and experience the whole experience. While you're swirling, checking for legs and preparing to sniff; while you're holding the wine up checking for cloudiness; while you're examining the color and searching for the perfect way to describe it, you're enjoying aspects of the wine that you might otherwise miss. And you're letting the anticipation build up. (Cue ketchup music…darn, dating myself again.) After all, when was the last time you examined the color of your Coke, or investigated the cloudiness level of your iced tea? Nope, you just chugged it down. It was good, too. But it probably wasn't an experience truly savored. The process of wine tasting helps to ensure that you will fully experience and savor the wines you drink. And that's a good thing, no matter how you color it.
Coming up: What's in a nose? The basics of wine-smelling.