We are visual creatures, it’s a fact of basic biology. Nothing changes when it comes to wine. When you pour a glass, you expect to see a brilliantly colored fluid free of anything floating within it (most of the time, but we’ll get to that). Merely looking at a glass of wine can give us some significant clues about the liquid the glass contains.
You pour a glass and it’s a bit hazy. Does this mean something is wrong? In short, no it does not always mean that, but it could. First, it could mean your wine is unfiltered (in wine terms, unfined). Fined wines have a fining agent put into them to remove undesirable material from the final product to make them clear. Seems reasonable, right? Well, this is a complicated topic. This simple step makes most wines no longer vegan. The fining agents most commonly used are egg whites or gelatin. Some winemakers, regardless of dietary inclinations, feel that fining is unnatural and the fining agents can never be fully removed from the final product even though they remove a vast amount of the unwanted materials they are put in to take out. You can be the judge of this on your own. Most of the wines you find on store shelves are fined unless you’re shopping at a ‘natural food store or in a natural wine section’ because they don’t have the appearance most consumers expect. Cheaper wines though (names like Cupcake and Carlo Rossi come to mind), can have all sorts of things floating in them as that is a trade off made when you aren’t paying for that extra attention. One other possibility is the wine has been aged. Aged red wines especially, have pieces of tannin and pigment that combine into larger molecules and fall out of suspension (sorry for the bit of high school chemistry). This is a reason to either decant wine or let the wine sit on your counter for some time before you pour it. If you pour directly from the bottle, be careful to ensure you don’t get chunks in your glass. It’s not detrimental but unsightly.
So you’ve determined if the wine is hazy or not (all of that for this one simple thing!), now you get to look at the color. Are you drinking a white, red or rosé? This sounds simple but again, it can be a bit cumbersome. You pour yourself a glass of Chardonnay. Is it clear with light lemony yellow and flicks of green? If so, it was picked young, was aged in a neutral vessel (most commonly stainless steel), and may come from a cooler climate. Is it more lemon to gold? This was aged in oak because oak allows for minimal oxygen exchange that deepens the color. Is it gold to amber? White wine gets darker the longer the wine ages. It was probably aged in oak then left to continue to age in the bottle for a considerable amount of time. Rosé is much easier, thankfully. Rosé can be made with a variety of red skinned grapes. It gets its color from limiting the amount of time the grape juice has contact with the grape skins. The skins have the color compound (anthocyanin) so by limiting contact, the winemaker can create the color they want for a rosé. Many types of red wine grapes can be used, a light skin colored Pinot Noir to a much deeper Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. Rosé wines aren’t usually intended for aging and are typically easy to drink on warm days. Their color varies from pink to orange (I will not discuss the super trendy orange wines unless I am discussing a wine from a country that is known to produce them but feel free to ask about them!) Ok, so that all seems simple, now on to red wine! Red wine is classified on a scale of purple to ruby to brown. Most red wines see time in oak. It can be neutral (this means the barrel has been used a couple two tree…for those midwesterners…times and no longer has much fresh oak to impart on the wine) which just allows a slow interaction between the wine and the oxygen outside the barrel or it can be new oak (much more about this when we discuss the aromatics of wine). Most red wines, once they’ve been bottled are a ruby color. The longer they sit in the bottle, the browner they get. Typically, it’s a slow evolution from ruby to garnet to brickish (it’s not a word but we use it anyway) to tawny. Color is also marketable. Cheaper wines add coloring to their wines to increase price points and in the US, it’s legal.
You’ve looked at the color and you’ve seen if it’s clear or not. Now it’s time for the really easy stuff! What else do you see? Do you see legs (the bits of wine that drip down the rim) on the side of the glass as you swirl it? This is a viscosity indicator. It either has a decent amount of alcohol or a decent amount of sugar or both. It does not tell you anything about the quality other than it has sugar and/or alcohol. If the legs are colored, then you have a dark skinned grape so that significantly reduces the number of types of grape in your glass. Does the color extend out to the edge of the glass or does it become clear near the edge? As wine ages, the more the color concentrates (those pesky anthocyanins again) in the center of the glass. Is it sparkling/have bubbles? Do those bubbles look like you poured a Sprite or are they delicate and focused in certain areas of the glass? This gives an general idea of the manufacturing process used in making this sparkling wine. When we discuss sparkling wines, we’ll discuss this more also!
I know that is a LOT of information but in looking at a glass of wine, we can see so much with our eyes if we just pay attention. In this manner, wine is like so many other things in life. These are clues we can confirm by continuing to engage. I hope you can try this with the next glass you pour!