The Colour of Wine
The colour of a wine is of great importance – but sometimes can be misleading. It should always give pleasure to the eye and possess a ‘living’ tone. But havingsaid this, there are many exceptions to such generalisations as are usually made. The charts that are becoming fashionable accompaniments to wine tasting amaze me by the range of words refering to colours they sometimes provide for the taster – but. as some people have an acute sense of colour and others rather a limited one. it seems more practical to evolve one’s own set of terms relating to colour. Gold, lemon-gold, light straw, greenish-lime for white wines; purple, plum, tawny red, crimson, rhododendron, azalea for red and pink wines: these are a fewof the words I use myself.
White wines tend to deepen in colour as they age and sweet white wines usually begin by being more definitely golden than dry wines. A notable exception is Chablis, with its odd, pale tone that possesses a shimmer of green – something no imitation of this wine ever reproduces. Red wines, however, tend to lighten as they get older and this also applies to port; some young red wines are almost black-purple in their youth. (The ‘purple stained mouth’ of Keats’ poem certainly might refer to anyone tasting young reds, when one acquires a black tongue, like a chow.) Naturally, the type of grape used wields an influence on the colour of the wine; both because of the varying tones of its juice (although most freshly-pressed grape juice is pale green, like grapefruit juice) and because of the difference in the pigmentation of the skins of the black grapes. In hot vineyards the sun develops this, so that the winesare darker red than those in northern vineyards. This is why a Mediterranean rose can be almost the colour of a light red wine, and a rose from some cold, northern vineyard will be very pale. If the must is slightly heated, more colour can be given to northern red wines.
However in some years certain wines are simply lighter than usual, in others darker. Various respectable methods of treating them can remedy a defect of colour. Before anyone thinks this unnecessary, may I advise the doubter to get a friend to add a little dark red colouring to a red wine without letting the taster see – and then try it. You will almost invariably comment that the darker wine has more ‘body’, even if it is exactly the same wine! This is why professionals often taste samples in a ‘black’ or dark coloured glass; so that they cannot be influenced, however slightly, by their eye telling them what the wine tastes like. There is also the problem of colours being altered in different lights. The light up in the dry atmosphere of the Douro Valley, where a shipper may be looking at samples of young port, is quite different even from the light in the lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia; and the light by which a Swedish buyer will appraise a wine will be different from that in the tasting room of a merchant in Bristol, even though all aio looking at the wine by the light of the same sun. This is why it is of great importance to match up samples of wines and spirits sold under brand names; there must be continuity. There are also fashions in. say, pale coloured Scotch. or dark coloured rum, as well as in certain wines; so that people who buy what they have seen advertised or tried in tastings want the colour to be the same, even if this does not, truly, affect the taste of the drink. A little experience will acquaint anyone with some knowledge of the main colours of the principal wines and spirits and, it should not be forgotten, in looking at these colours, some account should also be taken of the viscosity of the liquid – the actual texture it shows in the glass and how it falls down the sides of the bowl (see legs). It is extremely difficult, even with the best colour reproduction systems, to give exact pictures of the colours of wines, so that books are not always helpful.
There are two ways of looking at colour: the most usual is to tilt the tasting sample in the glass away from the taster, over something white, and note the gradations of colour from the miniscus down to the central point, which I refer to as the ‘eye’. One thus sees a range of tones. It is worth knowing that, in comparing wines, the wine in which a number of tones can be seen, even while it is still young, tends to be a wine with more to give the drinker and it will probably be the more expensive sample. Of course with a very dark red wine, such as a young port of a certain type of vintage, the colour will be so dark that shades of tones can hardly be noted, and with very pale white wines the lightness makes this type of appraisal equally difficult. People do occasionally hold a glass up to the light, but not as often as many suppose. As for the appraisal of a wine’s colour by candlelight, this is a pretty piece of chi-chi today. It is sometimes necessary in a cellar where there is no other form of lighting; it is ‘atmospheric’ (whatever that means) at certain types of wine parties. But serious tasting is done either by daylight or strong artificial light, in lab-like surroundings of white paint, white tiles or white plastic on the tasting bench, a north light and possibly a white wall outside the window.
Some tasters also find it interesting to stain a piece of white cloth with a drop of the wine being tasted, as this, spreading out into rings of shading, can also indicate something of the wine’s character. But this can become complicated and more for the laboratory to investigate. The simple explanations of colour can be overlooked when people are trying to be clever: a very pale red wine may simply be so because, either just before or during the vintage, there was a lot of rain! A very dark-toned sherry may be neither sweet nor particularly old; it could be one taken from a bottle that has been opened for weeks and standing in a strong light or the artificial light of a bar, when the wine has become maderised!
One of the most significant things about colour in wine was said by Allan Sichel: ‘The colour can tell you something as to how far a wine is from its beginning – it cannot tell you how near it is to its end.’ Colour should be observed and enjoyed: you should then go on to smell and taste.