Get a Clue!
Color reveals heaps about wine. Looking at a glass of wine is like looking at a photograph of a stranger. Wine color gives you clues as to the wine’s weight, grape variety, age and maturity.
Grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz are known for their deep, rich colors. In fact, some Shiraz wines are described as black. Lighter red color indicates grapes such as Pinot Noir or Sangiovese, the key grape used in Chianti.
To assess a wine’s color density, tip a glass of red wine over your watch (don’t spill!). Can you read the time? If so, you are probably sipping a light to medium weight red wine, which means it would pair well with poultry, white meats, pastas, or vegetarian dishes. Other wines are too dark or opaque to see your date through, let alone read the time.
Densely colored wines are usually heavy wines that would overpower light dishes. Save these wines for prime rib or sirloin steak.
One of the most important things you can learn from the color of wine is its age. Human aging begins with laugh lines, followed by gray hair, stooping posture, tooth loss, blue hair, then white. With such signs it is easy to assess someone’s age. I am battling plenty of laugh lines—go ahead and guess.
Wine offers predictable signs of aging as well. A young white wine will begin as a pale, light color, often with hints of green. As white wine ages, it gains yellow or golden tones, later evolving into a deep gold and finally a brown color.
Red wines start life with bright ruby or purple tones, mellowing into brick, then mahogany hues, before finishing life as dull, thin brown. These color changes are due to an oxidation process.
As fruit is exposed to oxygen it ages. Slice a Granny Smith apple. At first, the flesh is pure white. After a few minutes, the flesh begins to brown around the edges. A few hours later, the slice is brown. Wine ages in the same way, only more slowly because it is sealed with a cork that lets only minute amounts of oxygen seep into the wine.
In red wine, color does something else that’s interesting: As the wine ages, some of its color recedes or drops out.
Open an old bottle of red wine and you will notice an accumulation of dark red grit, or sediment, at the bottom of the bottle. Sediment is comprised of several aging byproducts, but one of these is color. Chemically, the romantic color molecules marry the wine’s harsh tannin molecules. The newlywed molecules become so heavy that they sink slowly to the bottom, leaving the wine softer, but with less color. This is something I’ve also noticed in my mirror—softer with less color.
As a result, an older wine’s color is concentrated in the center of the glass, with a lighter colored rim. This color gradation should be gentle, not abrupt. Beware if the rim is watery, with an awkward change to color—these are signals the wine has peaked and is not suitable for further aging.