How to Taste Wine, Part I: The Color Purple-ish

June 30, 2023

When tasting wine (remember, we’re “tasting,” not “drinking”… It’s like the difference between “hearing” and “listening”- remember when your guidance counselor taught you that?), there are three ways you can observe and experience a wine: your eyes, your nose, and your mouth.

And your experience of the wine goes in that order, right? The first thing about the wine you perceive is how it looks. When tasting wine, you consider, in this order: first color, then nose, and then palate.

So, we will begin our lesson with color! 

A wine’s color almost always goes unnoticed. Color may very well be the easiest characteristic to observe and articulate, but we rarely if ever consider it. You order red wine and a glass of something red, purple or almost black shows up. You order white and something ranging from almost clear to golden yellow arrives. Even in the more limited field of blush wines there seems to be endless hues of pink from salmon or coral to fuchsia, but we seldom consider the color and what it might tell us about the wine we’re about to drink.

It may help to know precisely how wine acquires its color and what that color tells us about its flavors.

When I was younger, I asked my father why different people had different colors of skin. He responded - most unhelpfully for a boy of 5 - by saying “we’re all the same color on the inside.” It turns out this maxim translates perfectly to wine grapes.

You see, all grapes are full of a clear-green pulp on the inside. What contributes most to a wine’s color is the pigment and thickness of that grape’s skin. There are other factors that affect color such as exposure to oxygen (slice and apple and watch it brown, the same thing happens to wine, both red and white) and temperature during fermentation (put a teabag in cold water and hot water and watch which water changes color more rapidly), but for this purpose, we’ll focus on grape skin color.

Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon are perhaps the starkest examples of contrasting color in red wine. So for the sake of this blog, we’ll focus on these two grape varieties. Pinot Noir is almost always reddish in color and somewhat translucent. Cabernet Sauvignon is darker, usually ranging from deep purple to black and is frequently opaque. So how do these two grapes result in wines of such different colors?

- a cluster of ripe Cabernet Sauvignon - 

- a cluster of ripe Pinot Noir - 

Cabernet grapes are perfectly round and thick-skinned. At their ripest, they look like plump blueberries. All of the grapes are uniform in size and each cluster of grapes is somewhat loose. This means sunlight can touch the entire surface area of each individual grape. This exposure to sun (as is the case with our own skin) darkens the grapes more thoroughly. The inside of the Cabernet skin is much darker than the exterior, resembling the color of blackberries or licorice. 

Pinot Noir grapes vary greatly in size, even within the same cluster of grapes. This variation is often called “Chicks and Hens”. Pinot Noir grape clusters are much tighter and therefore a portion of each grape is permanently protected from the sun. Though the grapes look fairly dark on the outside, the inside of the Pinot skin is a ruby or blood-red hue reminiscent of raspberries or pomegranate seeds. Pinot skins are also much thinner and more delicate than Cabernet skins.

Presuming that both grapes are made into wine in a similar manner, the thicker, darker skin of the Cabernet grape possesses more color to impart to the juice as it ferments into wine. As the grape’s sugars convert to alcohol that alcohol also breaks down the skins into smaller bits, exposing more surface area of dark skin to the juice. This phenomenon also affects the wine’s flavor and texture, but it certainly contributes to a deeper, darker color. The more delicate and lighter colored Pinot skins still give their color to the wine, but they have less color to give. The different sizes of Pinot grapes also means that the ratio of skin-to-juice and therefore color-to-wine is less consistent.

Color and Weather

Another great inference we can sometimes draw from a wine’s color is the climate where the grapes were grown. Darker, thicker-skinned grape varieties are better equipped to handle warmer, drier climates whereas thinner, lighter-skinned grapes such as Pinot Noir really thrive in cooler areas with a bit of moisture. In many ways, it’s no different that other fruits. Delicate red fruits like strawberries and cranberries require cooler, moister environments than heartier fruits like wild blackberries.

These similarities that grapes share with other fruits is a theme that will come into play every time you taste wine. Is it any coincidence that when you sniff a glass of Pinot your nose is filled with delicate aromas of cranberry and pomegranate while a whiff of Cabernet smells more like blueberries and blackberries? The different elements of a wine that your different senses respond to will always work together and reinforce each other.

Next time you’ve a glass of wine in front of you, take a moment and consider its color. Is it red, purple or black? If it’s a white, is it pale gold, bright gold, does it have tints of green? Hold the glass at an angle over a newspaper or magazine and see if you can read the print through the wine.

Observing the color will not only help you remember a wine as you start to catalog wine’s you’ve tasted in your brain, but may also clue you in to:

1. Where the grapes were grown.

2. The color and thickness of those grape skins.

3. The smells and tastes you’re about to experience.

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