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stirring the lees with james molesworth

What a Wine's Color Means. And What It Doesn't ...

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 25, 2006 12:33pm ET

We were cleaning up from lunch on Sunday when I asked my wife, Nancy, what she had thought of the red. It was a social lunch with guests, so Nancy hadn't seen the bottle--only tasted the wine.

"It was really good," she said.

It was the '97 Barbaresco Basarin from Moccagatta, I told her.

"Ah, that makes sense," she said. "The color was totally Italian."

I knew what she meant. The color was dark and somewhat muddled, with a hint of brown at the rim--typical for Nebbiolo.

It was interesting to hear her comment though, since she had, in effect, tasted the wine blind. While she had made a mental note on the color, it hadn't really steered her one way or the other. She had relied more on her taste to form an opinion.

If the wine had been served alongside a dark, vivid, purple Cabernet, she might have opted for the one with the supposedly "better" color. Or not.

Many people have become obsessed with color in their wines--the darker and more opaque the better. The more purple, the better. Sight is one of the senses, so seeing a vivid, exciting color in a wine is sure to get the taste buds salivating. But don't let color fool you. There are many wines with impressive color that taste as if they are made of wood. And then there are wines made from Nebbiolo or Pinot Noir, where a murky, tealike color can lead to a sublime experience.

Color tells you something, but not everything. Some of the proof is in the glass, but the most important proof is on the palate.

What's your experience? Do dark-colored wines always win?

Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  September 25, 2006 1:53pm ET
I think one of the "prettiest" colors is the way opus one reflects off the sun. It's a fairly dark red but in the light it shows off such a beautiful purity and softness. I also loved the amber hues in an aged tawny port. The opaque stuff is no fun when taking pictures on a sunny day. Don't get much good refractions.
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  September 25, 2006 3:29pm ET
Absolutely not. To be honest, I think there are too many "black" wines out there. We've gone beyond red. For me, it depends on what I'm having the wine with. I don't normally drink it as a cocktail. I normally consume my wine with food. So I choose based on what I'll be eating. But many people I know feel that the bigger, darker, an more robust wines are superior to anything that appears weaker. Taste is subjective so I don't argue the point. However, I can't help but think to myself about the number of truly wonderful wines they miss out on simply because they dismiss them as inferior. Last night I had a Chinon (C. Jouget, Clos du Chene Vert 2002). Most of the people I know can't understand a wine like that. Its too reserved. Its red, but not black. Its not terribly woody. Its flavors were more earthy than cedar and vanilla. It would probably be pushed aside for not being big enough. But here's something very un-American: bigger is not always better. I'm horribly biased toward French wines. But I'm open to variety because each wine has different qualities and makes different contributions. Dan J
Bret Dublinske
Iowa —  September 25, 2006 3:31pm ET
I certainly do not believe the most saturated hue always wins, but that does not mean color is not important. One of the wonderful things about enjoying wine is how it can involve all of the senses. The wide variety in colors -- and in combinations of color with other sensory observations like weight, texture, flavors, aromas -- is part of the fascination. I have had petite sirahs that were virtually black and let no light pass and were velvety and delicious. I have had 10-year old rhones that were an earthy scarlet to medium brick-red and let light through easily that were more complex and nuanced than a grape-jam colored wine could ever be. That the color is an important part of the experience and of what gets rememebred in no way suggests that any particular color is better. Part of the joy of exploring the vast diversity of wine is that there is no one right answer (although admittedly I've tasted some proof that there are wrong ones.)
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  September 25, 2006 4:51pm ET
Absolutely not. To be honest, I think there are too many "black" wines out there. We've gone beyond red. For me, it depends on what I'm having the wine with. I don't normally drink it as a cocktail. I normally consume my wine with food. So I choose based on what I'll be eating. But many people I know feel that the bigger, darker, an more robust wines are superior to anything that appears weaker. Taste is subjective so I don't argue the point. However, I can't help but think to myself about the number of truly wonderful wines they miss out on simply because they dismiss them as inferior. Last night I had a Chinon (C. Jouget, Clos du Chene Vert 2002). Most of the people I know can't understand a wine like that. Its too reserved. Its red, but not black. Its not terribly woody. Its flavors were more earthy than cedar and vanilla. It would probably be pushed aside for not being big enough. But here's something very un-American: bigger is not always better. I'm horribly biased toward French wines. But I'm open to variety because each wine has different qualities and makes different contributions. Dan J
Tullio Panarello
Montreal —  September 25, 2006 5:16pm ET
I agree with Dan's comments above. Too many purple-black wines that are not to my mind aesthetically appealing from a visual sense. Visually, I respond to truly red wines in a way that the inky monsters cannot compete with. It's a shame that they have forgotten in Bordeaux why their wines were originally called Claret. As Dan intimates, Americans seem to prefer their aesthetic experiences to be more extreme. Intense flavours, accurate varietal typicity, powerful mouthfeel, opaque color, are all de rigeur. Subtlety and a light touch don't often seem to count for much. The nose is where the nuances often lie. Give me a wine I can be content to sit and sniff without having to touch a drop and I'm in heaven.
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  September 25, 2006 5:50pm ET
The color of the wine is usually dictated by the variety of the grape. You would expect a good pinot noir to have a lighter red color. In fact, if the pinot is too dark I get suspicious that the winemaker added other grapes to darked it. Cabernet sauvignon, on the other hand is usually darker, often much darker. Zinfandel is usually in the middle of the color spectrum. From my experience,the brown color at the edge of the glass usually comes from aging. With a little practice you can learn the color charectoristics of the various grape varieties. Deviation from the color that you would normaly expect, sometimes, but not always, could indicate that other grape varieties have been added, or perhaps something is amiss. But if the wine tastes good, who cares? John B. Vlahos
Defne Candir
September 25, 2006 9:39pm ET
Way to much attention is paid to color by a small percentage of wine drinkers. Most of the rest of us pay it cursary attention and then move on to the nose and taste, which out match in both importance and enjoyment by a staggering large margin anything we gain through the eye."The first bite is with the eye" is a great expression for culinary delights. By examing the greasy sheen of a roast or the carmelized crust of a creme brulee we already have great anticipations of the delights to come. When it comes to wine "the first sip is with the nose" would seem more appropriate. The color, clarity and consistency should be examined quickly at the begining to assess age/varietal/regional correctness and then quickly forgotten as one gets on with the serious business of actually enjoying the product. Hopefully the wine is being enjoyed with fantastic food and people in a delightful atmosphere. This being the case I hope we have more to occupy ourselves with than staring at our wine glasses.
Simone White
NY NY —  September 26, 2006 9:49am ET
The best is when you get that rusty, october colored wine. Deep at the core then visual elegance at the rim, relaying a patience and wisdom about itself.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  September 26, 2006 12:12pm ET
When my Pinot Noir starts turning orange or at least brick colored at the edge I know that I need to finish up the rest of the bottles soon. I personally don't like it when all the fruit drops off, so the color is important from that perspective. I'd say as far as visuals I must say I get far more excited when I see the wine oozing down the side of the decanter/glass and I know it's not from high alcohol content. Much more important visual cue than color.
Mike Vanhassel
October 6, 2006 7:29pm ET
There is a nice, subtle approach to winemaking and the reflection of grape pedigree that is reflected in the color of great Burgundy and Chianti that is hardly duplicated elsewhere. Often unimaginitave and less esoteric wines have less dimension of color. These are often (but not limited to ) the same wines that are linear and one dimensional, expressing limited, but often powerful characteristics.

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