What do you "see" in wine?
Newcomers to wine appreciation - and even some experienced tasters - frequently ask why wine-tasting reports usually devote a few words (and sometimes more than just a few) to the color and appearance of the wine. After all, the standard comment goes, you don't taste with your eyeballs!
It's true, of course, that you don't absolutely need to pay any attention to what wine looks like. Most of what we enjoy in wine comes with its smell and taste. But there are good reasons to take a quick look at the wine before you sniff.
Inspired by opening two Beaujolais Nouveaus the other evening and discovering to my delight that one showed a textbook example of ruby color while the other was a perfect garnet, I thought it would be fun to undertake a quick recap of the visual side of wine today.
The first issue is practical: Most wine judges check the appearance of wine because an unexpected color may signal a problem. A cloudy or hazy appearance might herald contamination or an unwanted secondary fermentation (although it also might simply reflect an unfiltered wine, not always a bad thing).
Judges also scrutinize whether the color is typical of the grape or style. Pinot Noir, for example, is often surprisingly light in color, and a very dark color might signal an idiosyncratic wine. A translucent Shiraz, on the other hand, would be a very odd thing. Standard wine-scoring sheets, including those used in most major wine competitions, usually allocate a certain percentage of points - often from one-tenth to one-fourth of a wine's total score - to its appearance.
But there's another aspect of eyeballing wine, and although it's perhaps more romantic than rational, I think it's important: Wine tasting is a pleasure that shouldn't be rushed, and the old folk wisdom about taking time to smell the roses could easily be restated for the wine lover as slowing down to gaze upon the wine.
Like an actor getting "centered" in his role or an athlete putting on a "game face," I find that pausing to examine the wine helps me focus more clearly on the process of smelling and tasting. And it's no coincidence, I think, that the vocabulary of wine colors tends toward metaphors of luxury and beauty, from precious stones (garnet, ruby, emerald) to ornamental metals (brass, bronze, gold) to good things to eat (honey, caramel).
And if you still think it doesn't matter, visualize this: Would you enjoy your wine as much if you had to sip it from a black glass?
WHAT DO YOU "SEE" IN WINE?
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Now, here are today's wine reports. Showing the benefits of the very hot summer of 2003, they are two of the best Beaujolais Nouveau that I've tasted this year - or any year.
Louis Tête 2003 Beaujolais Nouveau ($10.49)
Deep ruby color, clear purple with reddish-orange glints. Light and fresh berry aromas, clean and true, seem more subtle - and frankly more refined - than the usual "grapey" Nouveau. The flavors are consistent, ripe and full but well-balanced, more akin to the "real" Beaujolais than the quick-to-market Nouveau. An exceptionally fine example of the genre, testimony to both Louis Tête's consistent quality and to the torrid summer of 2003. U.S. importer: Bercut-Vendervoort & Co., Brisbane, Calif. (Nov. 25, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: An easy food match, worked well at our table with a lamb-and-potato shepherd's pie.
VALUE: Head and shoulders above the competition.
WHEN TO DRINK: Although balance and fruit will carry it longer than you'd expect, Nouveau is still a wine to drink now.
WEB LINK: Louis Tête is online in French and English:
Domaine Manoir du Carra 2003 Beaujolais Nouveau ($9.99)
Clear garnet, a bright reddish-purple with a blueish tinge. Characteristically "grapey" fruit and spice, a typical Beaujolais bowl-O-fruit. Bright and juicy on the palate, too, ripe and clean fruit properly balanced by lemon-squirt acidity. U.S. importer: Kysela Pere et Fils Ltd., Winchester, Va. (Nov. 25, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: The wine's ripe grapiness calls for robust fare, and a hearty lamb shepherd's pie passed muster.
VALUE: The $10 point appears standard for Beaujolais Nouveau in this market, and this is one of the better efforts.
WHEN TO DRINK: It might be drinkable next year, but even the unusually tasty 2003 Nouveau still demand early drinking: Quaff them during the coming holiday season or over the winter, then move on.
WEB LINK: Here's the importer's fact sheet on Jean-Noel Sambardier's Domaine Manoir du Carra:
Wine Tasting 101: Festive holiday wines
The holiday season is upon us, and with it comes a festive spirit that invites celebration, sharing with family and friends, and something a little special in the way of food and wine.
We're getting into the holiday spirit in Wine Tasting 101, our free interactive wine-education program on WineLoversPage.com, starting December's topic early enough to incorporate Thanksgiving weekend as we celebrate the joy of festive holiday wines.
You're invited to join the celebration - while learning about wine - by uncorking bottles in two celebratory categories this month: Sparkling wine and Port. This time, however, there's a twist: Recognizing that true Champagne and Vintage Port are priced well up in the special-occasion range, we focus on more affordable alternatives: Sparkling wines other than Champagne; and "vintage-character" Port.
To learn more about Wine Tasting 101 and how to participate, click to
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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003