By The Glass
Don’t judge your wine by its color
I've never gone to a restaurant and asked for a white wine with a really yellow-gold color and hints of green. Nor have I thought to myself as I stood in the wine aisle that I would like to buy an opaque purple, inky red wine for dinner. Even in my WinED wine tastings at Formaggio's Wine Bar, I don't call much attention to the color of the wine -- except whether it is white or red. And yet in the minds of many, the color of a wine suggests intensity of flavor.
Let's take a look at where almost all the color in wine comes from -- the grape skins. The thicker the skin, the deeper in color the wine will be. Winemakers can extract more color by allowing the juice of the grapes to stay in contact with the skins longer.
Most white wines spend no time in contact with the skins. They are pressed and the juice is racked into containers where the fermentation process begins. With red wines it is almost imperative that the juice stay in contact with the skins, not only to extract color, but also flavor. Many flavor components come uniquely from the skins.
Another source of color is actually the toasted oak barrel that the wine is aged in. This color is more prominent in white wines that have a golden hue. In barrel production the oak staves are toasted over an open fire, releasing flavors like vanillin, smokiness, nutmeg and cinnamon. Once the barrel is filled with wine, the wine picks up these flavors as well as the caramel-like color that comes from the charred wood.
The last influence on wine color is age. As white wines age, they turn more golden or amber. Red wines turn lighter, brick red, orange and rust colors. This is caused by the slow process of oxidation, even though the wine is bottled. Recent research has also associated the Maillard process, a type of browning, with these changes of colors.
Now, how do all these colors affect our taste or impression of the wines? One would assume that the lighter the color, the softer and lighter the flavor of the wine; the darker the color, the more intense the flavor. But this is not always the case.
Many wines that I've tasted over the years were only lightly colored but were among most intensely flavored. Riesling and sauvignon blanc, for instance, have some penetrating and pungent flavors that can imprint themselves on your palate -- yet the wine has very little color; it's watery and see-through.
Pinot noir is a thin-skinned black grape that as a wine does not usually have a deep color. But it has a wonderfully impactful flavor that in my mind is peerless.
Alas, color seems so important that many of less-than-scrupulous winemakers actually add grape dye to their wines in order to make them look darker, playing on the psycho symptomatic association between color and flavor. At least now you know not to judge a wine just by its color.
Wines of the month
2006 Whitcraft California Pinot Noir
($30): Sandalwood, cherry, strawberry and vanilla abound in this seductive and silky pinot noir. This is a real palate-pleaser.
2006 Cainbrae Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($14): An aggressive aroma of grapefruit, lemon, lime and pineapple jumps from the glass. It softens on the palate with a zesty and light character that is really thirst-quenching.
Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier and wine educator with Southern Wine & Spirits.
This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals. Write to email@example.com