If it’s true that you eat with your eyes, it’s also true that you drink with your eyes. Most of the visual appeal of a wine is its colour. You can certainly draw several important clues about a wine from its colour before you actually smell or taste it.
When it comes to whites, the colours can range from being colourless to straw yellow, golden or brown. To accurately view a wine’s colour, hold the glass against a white napkin or piece of paper.
The colour tells you several things. First it can give you a rough clue to the type of grape. Riesling is very pale, almost colourless. Chardonnay, on the other hand, is more intense and yellow. If a white such as Chardonnay is oaked, it will be even darker and more golden.
As white wines age, they darken in colour. All whites, no matter how pale they start off in their youth, will get more yellow, more golden and eventually turn brown.
While there aren’t any rules in wine appreciation, you seldom want to drink “brown” white wines. They are usually so old they have oxidized and lost their fruitiness and their acidity that is the life force in the wine.
We call old brown wines, dead wines. Avoid drinking dead wines, unless they are Spanish sherries!
Rosés also vary considerably in colour and the colour is half its charm. The better rosés are made from black (red) grapes, the skins left in contact with the fermenting grape juice just long enough for some of red pigment to be extracted.
A few rosés have the colour of onionskin and are termed pélure d’onion or vin gris (grey wine). Many rosés, especially from Provence have an attractive orange pink colouration.
Cheaper rosés, made from white and red wines blended together reveal an artificial pink hue.
Red wines also have a wide range of colours. Grapes with thin skins, such as Pinot Noir have fewer red pigments that dissolve in the fermenting juice. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have much thicker skins so there is more pigment to dissolve into the grape juice.
In their youth, red wines are purple-red. As they age, they turn ruby. When they reach their maturity, they take on some terra cotta or orange-red colouration. Unlike whites that darken as they age, reds get lighter with time.
When you tilt a glass you will notice this terra cotta hue along the rim of the glass, where the wine is shallow. At this stage, the wine is at its peak of maturation and won’t get much better than it currently is. If you have a case of this wine, you might want to begin drinking the wine sooner than later.
So next time you reach for a glass of wine, slow down and appreciate the colour before your eyes and anticipate the smell and flavour just around the corner.
Eric Hanson is a retired Richmond teacher and UBC instructor, and a wine educator.