Wine: The Importance of Color

Hue shouldn’t be dismissed when evaluating whites or reds, for it can reveal a lot about their age and storage

A respected online wine publication recently took up the subject of color, something we don’t consider much these days, although it once was considered an essential part of evaluating a wine.

One point the article made is that color can be neither sniffed nor tasted. So how important is it, really?

In some cases, color can be an indicator of flaws, especially in white wines, and an illusion — a mask hiding greatness in reds.

Last month, a friend who has a good stash brought a bottle of white burgundy to our house for dinner — a 2007 made from the aligoté grape. Not your usual white from a region known primarily for fine chardonnay.

We opened the wine, and the first thing that was noticeable in the glass was indeed the color. It was not that bright, vibrant yellow-gold of a still-young burgundy white, but then, this wasn’t chardonnay, either. Rather, the color was slightly to the amber side of the yellow spectrum. But from 2007?

As soon as our noses hit the glass, the “aha!” moment arrived: oxidation. In this case, smell — and later — tasting confirmed what the color had already broadcast. There was something troubled about this wine.

One of two things had happened here. Either somebody had made a mistake at the winery, or the wine had been improperly stored in transit from Europe and had sat in excessive heat on a dock or in an unrefrigerated warehouse.

So, many people look at an older red, see the lighter color, and assume it’s dead, a goner. And that’s too bad.

In any case, a wine that should still be fairly youthful and fresh had become prematurely aged and was about to fall apart.

In red wine, color can be an opposite indicator. Young reds are deceptive because, in recent years, many wineries have infused their wines with a coloring agent called Mega Purple. Hair dye for wines, essentially.

Some think it makes the wines look better. Others debate whether the deep purplish additive alters the smell and taste of wine. Many winemakers won’t use it, because they insist it does just that.

But there’s a different story in red wines that have not been altered. While whites naturally darken as they age, reds naturally lighten over time. We don’t see too many of those older reds these days, because Americans have a preference for reds that are young, big, muscular, and dark. Who wants to wait 20 years for a wine that tastes different? Right?

So, many people look at an older red, see the lighter color, and assume it’s dead, a goner. And that’s too bad.

Never underestimate a red wine because of the lightness of its hue. One of the very best, deepest, most elegant and refined red burgundies that I have ever tasted looked so light that it was the color of pale rosé, but to the brick side of red. It looked much as if it had been diluted with water for a child to taste.

In competitions, where almost all entries are newly released wines, we rarely look at the wine’s color in passing. I never score a wine on its color these days.

But when I open a bottle at home, not knowing where a wine has been stored, color still has a lot of relevance. On the first pass, at least, before it reaches the nose and mouth.

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