To follow up on my posts on the initial requirements for examining a wine blind, and the general appearance of white wine in the glass, this third ‘Approach’ post will deal with observing red wines in the glass and what the appearance can tell you about these wines. My next series on developing blind tasting techniques will focus on aromas.
As with whites, in can be instructive to tick off a ‘mental checklist’ of what to look for in the glass. You shouldn’t expect to see any spritz (except in a few unusual sparkling red wines); otherwise the list is very similar to that of whites: colour, depth of hue/opacity, clarity, gradient, and sediment.
The spectrum of red colours goes from orange-red, through brick-red, ruby-red, violet, purple and indigo. Colour descriptive words are of course quite subjective, and there are doubtless many less standard ways of describing the colour of wine. For instance, you may hear words such as ‘garnet’ and ‘russet’ used to describe the colour. They’re great if you, and the describer, know what they mean(!), though as the term garnet comes from a gemstone that can occur in almost any colour, it is perhaps not that helpful. The most common colour of garnets is a deep, warm red, and that may be what people refer to when using this term to describe wine. Russet is perhaps more useful; it is a reddish-brown colour, as in russet potatoes.
The absolute colour is coupled with the depth of this colour, along with its intensity, or clarity. It can be hard to untangle the meanings of all these words, when they are fairly well integrated. ‘Depth’ is generally synonymous with ‘opacity’, however the term can also indicate a ‘richness’ of colour, and thus even semi-translucent wines can have a ‘depth’ of colour. At the other end of the spectrum, very deep purple- or indigo-coloured wines can appear an almost inky black.
‘Intensity’ or ‘clarity’ can be thought of whether the wine shines or sparkles. Even the most opaque, inky-black wine described above can have ‘clarity’ of this sort. Fine-grained sediment in some wines (even if not visible in bulk) can lead to a very subtle murkiness or dullness, thus a less intense or less clear wine. This is not at all a fault with the wine, although some taints in wines can produce a similar effect.
A useful comparative test of opacity can be the ‘stem test’. With only about 2cm depth of wine in the glass, stand the glass on a white background and look directly from above. The ease with which you can see the stem of the glass through the liquid can give a semi-objective indication of opacity.
The gradient of red wines will, in general, be a lot more expressive than that of whites. Along with a greater change in appearance as the wine ages, even young red wines can express a variation in colour, from the core to the rim. Tilting the glass to observe the gradient can also probe the actual colour of seemingly very deep, ‘inky’ wines.
In general, red wines tend to lighten with age. This is especially noticeable at the rim of wine, where we could describe a ‘brickening’ of the colour, as the red hues turn brick-orange.
Sediment can also be an indication of age, although for some wines it doesn’t take long for sediment to appear, and not all red wines will have sediment. Sediment is simply the solid matter (such as the grape skin and stalk) from the winemaking process aggregating out of its solution, and is nothing to worry about.
One key point to remember with age is that different wines, from different vintages, will age differently. That is to say, wines express typical aging characteristics – a brickening at the rim, and possible sediment in terms of the appearance of the wine – at different rates. So to say that since both wines A and B have this much bricking of the rim, therefore they must be of similar age is not at all necessarily true. A wine from the same vineyard but from, say, the 2002 versus the 2003 vintage could appear dramatically different if you were to open the bottles in 2010.
I know it can see a bit overwhelming – all this information. My advice is to stick with it and find ways of breaking down the information into manageable bits. Hopefully this post helps! If you are feeling confident with observing the visual characteristics of red wines, then see part 2 of this post for clues to identifying wines based on their appearance. It is also important to note that the appearance of a wine is only one (small) part of the wine as a whole. In general, the aromas, flavours, and particularly the structure of the wine will be more reliable indicators for identifying wines blind. More posts on these aspects to follow!