Color Me Impressed

(Originally published February 2006)

Hanes kills a lot of trees by going on and on in his wine reviews about the color of wine. So, it stands to reason that Hanes believes the color of a wine is important. But why, Hanes, why? Indeed, why. Hanes will now discuss what the color of wine tells or does not tell the imbiber.

It should be noted at the outset that this is one of the trickier topics to discuss and that everything about to be said can probably be argued ad infinitum by anyone with a desire to do so. This is primarily because scientific advances in winemaking have more or less problematized the basic visual inferences one would make about wines.

First, while obvious it should be stated that wines are normally divided into the following groups: red, white and rosé. It's true. What anyone can discern about a wine will vary depending on its grouping here. The main reason is that vinification processes differ enough among red, white and rosé wines to forbid treating them as the same in assessing color's meaning. These distinctions exist whether the wines are made “traditionally” or “manipulated” via more recent advancements in winemaking. Just because, Hanes will not isolate the three types of wines too much during this treatise but will instead make side statements as necessary and prudent.

Using red wines as our basis then, here's what color is good for. Color can tell you about which grapes may have been used (helpful if the wine is being tasted blindly), the level of extraction of the wine, what type of fining or filtering may have been employed, and/or the age of the wine. These aspects of the wine may or may not be of importance to you, the swallowing party. That's your call. If you do care, keep reading. If not, please go to the tasting notes and fall asleep.

First things first, if you are serious (too serious) about assessing a wine's nature via its color the conditions should be optimal. A clean white background is a usual prerequisite so no colors outside the wine will confuse your tender eyeballs. Some printed text or clear script on a white sheet of paper is good because the legibility of the text may come in handy in determining the wine's opacity, translucency, etc. A strong light source is of equal value, natural light is best but there are now many brands of incandescent bulbs which emit light in wavelengths that are much closer to natural sunlight than those from “regular” bulbs. Hanes uses these fancy light bulbs at home. They are also supposed to help combat Seasonal Affective Disorder and other depressions. See how happy Hanes is as proof of these bulbs' efficacy. Fluorescent lighting is crappy for assessing wine color.

The only other thing is that you should be able to twist and turn the glass against the background and lighting so as to view the wine from any angle with ease. Again, no great insight but the liquid will appear differently from various angles and each angle may impart some different tidbit of knowledge. This is part of why you don't overfill the glass - a full glass tilted at the correct angle to inspect the color is swiftly a much emptier glass.

Now, different grapes naturally produce different colors and depth of hue depending on the color of their skins and the size of the berries among other factors. Indeed, some grapes are used in blends primarily to add color and not flavor nor bouquet. Already we are going to get controversial and say that one can learn the “typical” color each grape type “should” produce in a “normal” finished wine. Is Hanes still “safe”? A typical Pinot Noir based wine should not look like a Syrah based wine. Pineau d'Aunis wines should not look like Petite Sirah wines. If they do, that's something to note. With experience, patience and attention one can learn the typical colors associated with each grape. One can even do so while accounting for geographical variations. Why, color might even help you determine the wine's place of origin! Go figure!

For red wines, typical color descriptors include: purple, violet, ruby, magenta, garnet, red, crimson, maroon, scarlet, rust, black, onyx, orange, brown, brick red, or brick orange.

For white wines, typical color descriptors include: gold, yellow, white, green, straw, hay, amber, sand, pink, brass, bronze, copper, or blonde.

For rosé wines, typical color descriptors include: pink, ruby, rose, salmon, watermelon, strawberry, or light red.

Because red wines have deeper and more varied color than white or rosé wines there are more descriptors. The intensity and concentration of the wine's color will change from the core towards the rims. The degree of change and the colors involved merit noting.

Younger red typically have darker coloration and, oddly, older white wines can be darker than their younger selves. Before getting too into this let us discuss clarity or the lack thereof. There are those who believe a wine should be brilliant and shiny. At least on the surface, as a dark red wine may be opaque beneath that glistening surface. Cloudiness or murkiness is treated as a defect. While this can be a sign of something like premature oxidation of the wine, it is just as likely to be a sign of a conscious winemaking decision to not fine nor filter the wine. This is especially so if the wine is younger. A winemaker may choose to avoid fining and/or filtration in the belief that this creates less interventive “noise” while the goal is to give a clear voice to the grapes and wine. Hastily put, at issue is whether fining or filtration strips out flavor, aroma and other fun stuff in order to achieve greater stability and/or avoid microbiological taint. You argue that one, Hanes is too tired. The upshot is that a lot of people view cloudiness (“view” - get it?, get it?) as necessarily a fault whereas this is not so. Less expensive, large production wines are more likely to be stabilized so if you are drinking a cloudy $8 Chardonnay that might be a warning sign that the wine is damaged.

A young wine made from dark skinned grapes with a lot of ripeness and extraction (that is, getting as much phenolics out of the grape solids during and after fermentation, for our purposes here phenolics being color pigment, tannins and flavonoids) may even develop a warm glowing quality to it, particularly around the rims. This may be magenta in red wines and green in white wines (whites having less phenolics on the whole than reds). This can make a wine look awful pretty. So, many winemakers like to get as much extraction as they can. Even though this may throw the wine out of balance. And require additional maneuvers to get the wine back into balance. This balancing act is made even more complex because as the color producing chemical called anthocyanins in the skins interact with the wine's level of pH or acidity, this effects the color of the wine. So, seeking a certain level of acidity (either more or less) in the wine will condition its color. And that color may not be the one the winemaker wants (even if the pH or acidity is gotten right).

Older wines may develop sediment or tartrate crystals as chemical reactions occur over time. These will certainly make an initially clear wine cloudy. This may indicate a wine's age but not necessarily its quality. Hence, a certain amount of cloudiness is not a sign for worry. A bottle can be stood up to let the sediment settle at the bottom and then be decanted and/or poured through cheese cloth to catch finer sediment. That's up to you.

In terms of color, older red wines change color as the pigmented tannins change. One wine tasting term for this is “bricking” because the color looks like red or orange brick. Brown, yellow and amber are also colors associated with older red wines. These colors are much more pronounced around the rims (aka meniscus) of the wine in the glass. This is really only practically important if the age of the wine is in question or there are fears about how the wine has been stored and perhaps damaged or prematurely aged.

Because most white wines are not exactly “explosions of kaleidoscopic color” there's less to go on here. But there remains a fair amount of variety among the chemical makeup of the different white wine grapes. Some grapes result in a greener cast, others in a pinker cast. As with red wines, the level of acidity as well as the addition of sulfur dioxide to the wine (which has a bleaching effect) will change the wine's color. Older white wines oxidize into a more brown to amber color and, again depending on the wine, this may or may not effect its quality. Many wines are aged with the intention of creating new flavors and aerobic reactions are a part of this (as are anaerobic reactions). If the older white wine was not brown chances are you wasted time and money in aging it as it may have hardly changed since its youth.

Note in passing that with white wines there are other factors which will effect color and not quality. For example, the beneficial mold botrytis tends to darken color, thus botrytized dessert wines are darker, even when young. Same thing with other concentration practices such as air drying grapes, etc. One could say that a dry table white wine that is darker than usual and tastes honeyed or sweeter than expected may have been effected by a bit of botrytis. If such sleuthing turns you on.

Color may also tip you off as to weather conditions of the wine's vintage. If the wine should normally be darker than what you see in the glass, there may have been rainstorms prior to harvest resulting in swollen and more dilute grapes (more juice in the skin-to-juice ratio decreasing color intensity). Full ripeness means richer color.

Fermentation and/or aging in oak barrels versus neutral vessels also effects the color of the wine, be it red, white or rosé. It can also effect the color's stability. So much color can tell you!

Besides using or not using oak, winemakers do all kinds of stuff to control color. Prior to the act of fermentation you can “cold soak” the juice and skins to break the skins down and release more pigment. Once fermentation begins and the temperature of the liquid rises, you can punch the rising solids back down into the liquid or pump the liquid over the floating solids. This goes back to the question of desired extraction. Which ultimately devolves to the question of what you, the end consumer, likes and wants. On the whole, darker wines are more concentrated but not necessarily fresher nor more balanced. If everyone wants to buy inky black, super-concentrated wines this can (and is) achieved during the winemaking process. But something is sacrificed. There are not many “test control” samples being circulated so we'll never know what the alternatives might have tasted like in contrast to the wine which was actually commercially released. Suffice it to say that, generally speaking, darker wines sell better (and it's a business). Man, can't Hanes hedge?

By now it should be pretty obvious that during the winemaking process there's plenty of stuff that can be done to control and change a wine's color. If this is so, doesn't this make it problematic to infer certain traits or qualities about a wine from its color? Hmmm, Hanes would say, yes, it has become much more difficult to use color in a practical sense. This is especially so when you consider the use of commercial coloring concentrates. Most wine professionals and wine geeks know these things exist but, no surprise, no one admits to using them. However, it stands to reason to surmise that if one wanted a wine with less tannin extract but all of the color one would normally get with extended grape juice to skin contact one can remove the skins, skip the tannins which come from these solids and then simply add color via concentrate. Result: smoother, less tannic wine and still black as the ace of spades.

If you ever doubt that wine is big business, and in many quarters more science than poetry, check out these links. Not only are there inexpensive coloring powders (Eno-In Red Wine Powder, Ultra Red, Mega Purple) but there are also enough other commercial additives to change a wine's composition to convince any romantic layperson that a convention of winemakers ain't a meeting of the Dead Poets Society.
(Scroll down to “Widmer Wine Cellars” where it discusses their production of Ultra Red and Mega Purple coloring concentrates)

It's not so much a question of “right or wrong,” Hanes isn't taking an ethical stand here. It's more an issue of pointing out how what you see may not be what you get. Color used to be able to tell you more about a wine than now. And since we have no idea who is using the tricks of the trade (huge commercial wineries cranking out $5 wines or boutique wineries selling $100 wines in bottles that weigh 20 pounds) the default just becomes, uhh, does the wine look pretty?

This is fine as far as it goes. But reducing the visual aspects of wine to simple aesthetics plays into the hands of those who take the “if you like it, it's a good wine” camp. And that may be the argument which sways you. But the layperson trying to learn about wine should at least be cognizant that other schools of belief exist and argue against this interpretation of wine appreciation. Again, Hanes doesn't have the energy anymore to take a stand on what is “natural” and what is “overly manipulated,” he just wants to lay the “facts” out there and then you decide.

Before sneaking out the back door Hanes should also mention the infamous color tests where red and white wines are poured at room temperature into black glasses for experienced wine professionals to sample blindly. Naturally, these tasters could not tell red from white wines with any great degree of accuracy. Hanes would most likely flunk such a test. Hmmm, why was color important again?