Part I of this post gave an introduction to the terminology of the appearance of red wines, and how the appearance can give clues to a red wine’s age. If you are feeling confident with these aspects, you may wish to delve further into what the appearance of red wines can tell you about specific grape varieties. (If you are unfamiliar with some of these grape varieties, don’t worry too much – they are all topics I will come to in time on this blog!)
It should be stressed, though, that the appearance of a wine is really only one small piece of the puzzle. It is not going to give you a definitive answer on what a wine is, and the pointers below should only be seen as a guideline. However, whereas the appearance of white wines would only give very limited information on the grape variety the wine has come from, the appearance of reds can be a little more instructive.
Initially, I tend to separate wines by depth and opacity. Grape varieties that produce wines at the lighter/more translucent end of the spectrum include Gamay, Pinot Noir, Corvina and Grenache. Grape varieties that can produce more opaque wines include Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, Pinotage, Zinfandel, and Carménère. Grape species that can come ‘in the middle’ include Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Cabernet Franc.
A word of caution, this list is only to be used as a guide. The actual opacity/depth of a wine depends on many factors – more than simply the grape variety. Growing location and climate are huge factors. Again to generalise, ‘Old World’ (traditional European) varieties that are now grown in the ‘New World’ tend to be deeper in colour in the New World than their European counterparts. Classic examples of this are: New Zealand Pinot Noir is generally deeper/less translucent than Burgundian Pinot Noir; Bordeaux blends (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) produce lighter-coloured wines in Bordeaux than they do in Chile or South Africa, where the same grape can be positively opaque; Australian Shiraz can be almost inky ruby- versus a medium depth ruby of a Rhone Syrah. (Shiraz and Syrah are two names for the same grape.)
The winemaking style can also influence the opacity and depth of colour. Zinfandel grown in California can produce both very opaque and semi-translucent wines, as can Spanish Tempranillo.
What makes a wine deeper in colour? One reason is growing climate. In hotter conditions the grape protects itself by growing a thicker skin. This results in a higher concentration of chemicals found in the skin that give the wine its colour. (Interestingly, this also leads to an increase in tannins present in the wine.) How much the colour of this skin is extracted in the winemaking process also influences the resulting colour.
Having thought about the depth of colour, the actual hue of the wine can also indicate particular grape species. Wines at the purple end of the spectrum could be Cabernet Franc, Merlot and/or Cabernet Sauvignon (especially New World), Shiraz and Pinotage. ‘Ruby’-coloured wines could be Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blends from Bordeaux, Zinfandel, Syrah, Corvina, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese or Tempranillo. Wines which are often at the red, moving towards orange, end of the range (even in young examples) could be indicative of Pinot Noir, Gamay, or Grenache grapes.
As I’ve said earlier, the appearance is just one piece of the puzzle. My next series of posts on how to blind-taste wine will look at the aromas of wines and what this can tell you.