The Approach: White wine in the glass

Burgundian Chardonnay

My first ‘Approach’ post set up the initial requirements to assess a wine ‘blind’, or without any prior knowledge of what the wine is. This post will look at what the appearance of white wines (excluding sparkling) can tell us about the wine itself.

Colour, ‘brightness’ or intensity, spritz, sediment, the difference between the core and the rim of the wine all give away subtle clues to the wine-making process, the possible age of the wine, and the grape variety.

As an academic exercise, it can help to have a mental checklist of what to look out for in the glass. Immediately after pouring, look for spritz – small bubbles of carbon dioxide that will appear just under the surface of the wine. Do this before swirling the wine in the glass, as the bubbles will swiftly disappear. Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of the fermentation process, and most of it is usually coaxed out of the wine naturally, or through the racking process prior to bottling. However, some wines are made to deliberately retain CO2 and if you can discern this, it may give a clue to the wine’s identity. Don’t worry about this too much though as it doesn’t take much to displace these bubbles from the glass, and CO2 is often discernible on the palate. Spritz could indicate a Riesling, Muscadet, Vinho Verde, or perhaps even a NZ or Chilean Sauvignon Blanc.

The colour of the wine is the next important facet to focus on. White wines have a spectrum from almost watery-white, through green, to straw, lemon, yellow, golden, and finally to coppery-orange for some dessert wines. In some cases the colour can give huge hints to the identity of the grape. For instance, a very pale green-white could be a Muscadet (a wine made in the Loire from the Melon de Bourgogne grape); a green colour could indicate a Pinot Grigio; while a copper hue is possibly a Tokaji or another aged dessert wine. However, the preponderance of ‘straw’, ‘lemon’ and ‘golden’ descriptions of colour in my tasting notes, reveals that colour can only take you so far.

The depth of the hue can at least give discernible hints as to the growing climate. For instance, the Chardonnay grape, grown in Chablis (latitude about 47°N) could appear ‘pale straw’, whereas the same grape grown in South Australia (latitude about 34° S) could have a ‘deep gold’ colour. The ripeness of the grape, often an indication of a cool or hot climate, can be expressed in a deepening of colour. As a ballpark, I often consider deeper-coloured whites to come from ‘warmer’ climates, for example, California, Australia, the more southern regions of France. This is on a graduated scale of sorts, and of course, there are exceptions to this grand generalisation on both sides.

A final check for appearance is to tilt the glass and to examine whether there is any difference in colour between the core of the wine (the greater body of liquid) and the rim (the edge). Invariably there will be, even if it is to say ‘this wine has a watery rim’ and ‘that wine has less of one’! This may not tell you a lot, although with age, the colour of white wines tends to develop towards the deeper golden, even orange (for extreme age, or some dessert wines) end of the spectrum. This age-related colour depth should appear more complex in the glass, with a gradient of colour from the core to the rim. However, this idea of a gradient is more identifiable in red wines.

Attention is paid by some commentators to the ‘legs’ of the wine, that is to say the ‘tears’ of alcohol that run down the inside of the glass following a swirl of the wine. They are an indication of viscosity, and related to alcohol and sugar levels in the wine. The excellent wine tutor Michael Schuster once told me that he doesn’t worry about these – there’s far more information in the structure of the wine on the palate – and I’m inclined to agree. On the other hand, I learned from a French student of wine that these ‘legs’ are a good indication of age in sweet wines, Sauternes for instance. For me, the jury’s still out on that one – I’ll need to drink a lot more aged Sauternes to compare!

The only sediment you should see in a white wine is tartrate crystals. These originate from the natural tartaric acid in the wine and can solidify over time. Nothing to worry about, and they won’t really give you any clues to a wine’s identification (although the wine could have some age to be releasing tartrate crystals!).

Appearance is just one factor in the great puzzle of blind identification of wines. It will seldom tell you anything concrete about the wine in glass on its own. The information must be added to what you smell, what you taste on the palate, and ultimately, what you feel about the wine.

The important thing to remember is that there are few hard and fast rules. Each winemaker has a different approach to the next, which results in different wines – even if their vineyards are next door! The key is experience and observation. Make a note of what you’re drinking and use it to compare to other experiences. The huge variety of wines is what keeps blind tasting so interesting, so engaging, and is what makes it so hard!

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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5 Responses to The Approach: White wine in the glass

  1. beyondanomie says:

    Excellent introductory instruction. Nice to see it laid out so clearly and concisely.

  2. Pingback: The Approach: Red wine in the glass (Part I) | The Oxford Wine Blog

  3. Pingback: The Approach: Red wine in the glass (Part II) | The Oxford Wine Blog

  4. Pingback: Appearance follow up | The Oxford Wine Blog

  5. Pingback: The Approach: a glass is a glass is a glass? | The Oxford Wine Blog

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