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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Why do some Cabernets leave your tongue purple while others don’t?
—Howard, Tyler, Texas
I’m going to expand your question to “why do some red wines leave your tongue purple while others don’t,” since this phenomenon isn’t really specific to any variety. The answer has to do both with the wine you’re drinking and with your tongue.
For starters, some red wines, like Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, do have more pigment in them than others. But it’s not just the grape—the site, growing season, vineyard and winemaking practices create thousands of variables that will affect how much pigment is in a red wine. Extended maceration (when the grapes steep in the wine), certain types of yeasts, higher temperatures ... these are all methods that winemakers might use to extract more pigments, along with tannins and flavor, into their wines.
Next, the age of a wine will affect pigmentation. As bottled wine ages, phenolic molecules (including the stuff that gives red wine its color) combine to form tannin polymers that fall to the bottom of the bottle as sediment. This is why a wine might seem more purple upon release, but 10 years later has faded into red and brick hues.
So, once the wine hits your mouth, the pigment (however much there is in the wine to begin with) ineracts with the pH in your saliva as well as the protein on your tongue. This is affected by the foods you eat—fat, oil and salt, for example—as well as how hydrated you and your tongue are. Want the purplest tongue? Drink a lot of the darkest wine you can get your hands on while you’re dehydrated and hungry.
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