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In most wine appreciation classes, colour is something
that is discussed as a first topic; however, I believe if you
don't taste the wine correctly to begin with, colour is
pointless. So I decided to talk about colour last in this se-
ries on wine tasting, and to include with it two other po-
tential aspects of wine appearance, which are crystals and
The colour of wine comes from a group of pigments in
grape skin called anthocyanins. Red wines are red be-
cause of the skins (the juice of red grapes is actually the
same colour as the juice of white grapes: clear). The cor-
rect way to look at colour is not to hold the glass up in the
air, but rather to look down and across the wine-filled
glass, while holding it at a 45 degree angle against a white
Different grape varieties have different hues. Pinot noir
makes a wine that is light scarlet. Gamay is cherry, which
I refer to as "Jell-O red"; zinfandel can be electric purple;
nebbiolo, almost black. When an experienced taster is
given an unidentified wine, colour gives the first hint of
which varietal of grape is in the glass. A common mistake
is thinking that the intensity of a wine's colour is related
to the intensity of its flavour. Deeply red wines, e.g. caber-
net sauvignon, are not necessarily more flavourful than
pale red wines, for example, pinot noir.
Colour is also a clue to age. White and red wines be-
• White wines get darker as they get older.
• Red wines get lighter as they get older.
For white wines, clarity of colour---often called limpidity---
is also important. Today, improved winemaking means
that virtually all white wines have clarity. A murky, cloudy
white may mean the wine has a problem. For red wine,
clarity is neither a good nor a bad thing. Many great reds
have perfect clarity; others (those that have not been fil-
tered, for example) may seem more opaque. Being
opaque is not the same as having sediment. As red wine
ages, colour pigments in the wine combine with tannin to
form long chains of molecules too heavy to stay in solu-
tions. These sediments sometimes precipitate out, form-
ing a sediment. Sediment is harmless. So are potassium
bitartrate crystals, more commonly called tartrates.
These are the snowflake-like crystals that are sometimes
found floating in white wines or sticking to the bottom of
the cork. These tasteless, harmless crystals (which are
the same as cream of tartar) are bits of natural tartaric
acid that have precipitated out of the wine, usually be-
cause of a quick and extreme drop in temperature. This
can happen when, for example, you take a wine that was
in a hot car and put it immediately in a very cold fridge.
What can you expect once you have taken these first sips
of wine? Here are some of the common ways a wine
might present itself.
Given the vast number that exist worldwide, however,
you may encounter wines that do not fit any of the fol-
1. Good wines begin with simple fruit flavours that ex-
pand quickly in your mouth, then fade.
2. Slightly better wines begin with more pronounced fruit
flavours that are sustained longer in your mouth.
3. Some above-average wines begin with exciting
flavours and have long, evocative finishes. Wines at this
level make you take notice of them.
4. Sometimes a wine begins with a bang of flavours, has
a "doughnut" or hole of little or no flavour in the middle,
than finish with an abrupt halt.
5. In some complex, relatively young wines, powerful lay-
ers of flavour burst open and rush over the palate in
one long, continuous wave.
6. In a complex, relatively young red, a mantle of tannins
may also temporarily cover the fruit. The initial big arc
is mostly a power surge of tannin, behind which the
wine seems to drop off. In time, if the tannin is subdued
as the wine ages, the wine will resume a long, graceful
7. In complex, old red wines, the initial big arc of tannin
and fresh fruit is subdued. The wine is almost erotically
subtle, opening with concentrated but tranquil fruit and
ending with a finish that does not seem to want to end.
Winemakers can, to a degree, affect the shape and length
of a wine's curve. For example, by aging a simple white
wine in new oak, the winemaker can build up the front
and back ends of the wine, giving it a greater impact of
flavour and texture. Blending in a different grape can also
smooth out bumps and holes in a wine. Thus the flavour
of one kind of red grape might be fleshed out and made
more complete by blending in another red grape variety.
Cabernet sauvignon and merlot, for example, enhance
each other in this synergistic manner.
So we are finally here, at the point of actually tasting.
Next week, get your favourite bottle of wine out as I am
going to take you through the actual tasting. I believe the
capacity to be thrilled by wine is ineluctably tied to under-
standing it in all its most basic, naked details, all which I
have covered in the past several months.
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