Some customary actions happen when delving into a wine for the first time or revisiting it to find nuances, and they are sight, smell, and taste related. The next series of posts will focus on these elements of wine tasting and will reveal why we even do these things in the first place. Today, we're focused on why we 'sight' (look at) a wine once poured in the glass. Let's dig into it.
You've probably seen a few wine geeks and lovers stare intensely at a wine after it has been poured in their glass and wondered and muttered, 'What on earth are they doing? Just drink it already'. The truth of the matter is that looking at a wine tells you quite a bit about what is in your glass; its condition, taste (yes, ideas on taste from looking at it), sweetness, alcohol, and even age.
What Looking At A Wine Can Tell Us
For the most part, the wines you consume will be in good condition with no flaws recognizable on sight. Modernization and supply chain improvements over the years have made this so. However, if you note a wine appears cloudy, you need to ask yourself some questions to assess the condition.
Cloudiness could be the desired outcome based on the winemaking, which is ok, but if it was not the winemaker's intent, you might have a problem.
When a wine is young and otherwise vibrant, cloudiness could represent microbial activity in the bottle, which will negatively affect its taste! This happens when a wine is exposed to unstable heat environments, and this instability causes bacteria to rise. The temperature instability can also cause wines to go through second fermentation in bottle, causing the wines to be unintendedly fizzy.
On the flip side, unfiltered wines can also have a cloudy hue, and here, this is not a sign of fault, but an indication that the winemaker decided to go low intervention with your wine, which may be something you want if looking for a more natural wine.
Taste, Sugar, and Alcohol - the phenom behind 'Wine Legs and Tears'
There is one tell-tale element in the glass that I attribute to possibly impacting taste, sugar or alcohol, and that is thickness and viscosity that appears around the glass just after you've given it a swirl. This is the wine aspect people refer to as the legs or tears.
Taste and Viscosity (Tears) - if viscous lines remain on your glass after swirling your white wine, this could be an indication of phenolic bitterness, a term used exclusively for white wines. Though tannin is a part of the phenolic compound family, we'll leave that science lesson for another day.
Phenolic bitterness is found in white wines made from grapes with thicker skins, such as Grüner Veltliner, Albariño, Pinot Gris, and Torrontés, to name the most popular. Phenolic bitterness gives off a nutty bitter taste on the palate and a soft wax coat on the tongue.
Alcohol and Viscosity (Tears) - high alcohol wines also cause thick liquid lines on the glass. As the alcohol comes into contact with oxygen, some of it evaporates, and what doesn't meanders down to meet the rest of the wine in your glass. If you note that the alcohol is evaporating slowly and leaving higher density liquid lines around your glass, that is a good indication that this is a high alcohol content wine. To put it plainly, higher levels of alcohol produce larger droplets or viscous lines, thereby taking it longer to stroll down the side of your glass into the surface area of the rest of the wine.
Sugar and Viscosity (Tears) - thick and viscous liquid lines dancing down the side of your glass could also indicate residual sugar in the wine. The sweeter the wine the thicker and weightier the juice in the glass. Very similar to the above with alcohol, these thick droplets of sweet wine will move slowly down the sides of your glass. Lines or 'tears' intensify with sweetness, even more so than alcohol.
All of the 'tearing' or viscous wine lines mentioned above are the result of the Marangoni Effect, which scientists explain as:
The Marangoni effect takes place when there is a gradient of surface tension at the interface between two phases – in most situations, a liquid-gas interface.
Age can be picked up by the colour of a wine. On a red wine, amber hues start to appear around the rim of the wine when tilted in the glass, and as it ages, that ring of amber gets thicker, changing the wine in your glass from ruby red to lighter density garnet to an eventual tawny brown. With white wines, age can be picked up from the wine's appearance as well. Instead of the wine getting lighter like with red wine, it gets darker. Aged white wine will go from a bright straw or pale yellow in its youth to a deep golden colour and eventually a deep amber.
Over time, wine becomes naturally exposed to oxygen, and oxygenation is the primary marker for colour change. This could be a full stop in explanation for white wine, but with red wine, there is more. Red wines get their pigment from anthocyanins. This is the phenolic compound credited for the red, blue/black colour of fruit (includes grapes). Over time, the concentration of anthocyanin decreases, and colour change occurs.
So the next time you pour wine in your glass, take a moment to see if you pick up any hints about what's in your glass just from looking at it!