Look at Your Wine Before You Drink it

Looking at Wine Glass_3.jpg

Last time we asked "Why do people look so closely at their glass of wine?" and learned that flaws, such as sediment and dis-colorization can be seen in a wine glass.

But, the color of a wine can also tell you about how it will taste and its age.

With white wines, pale yellow-green color generally indicates a light bodied wine that will have bright, crisp fruit flavors and higher acidity (e.g., Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc). A deep golden colored wine will tend to be full bodied, bolder in flavor and lower in acidity (e.g., Chardonnay).

With red wine, you'll find that those that tend toward pink to light red will be light bodied and bright in flavor (e.g., Beaujolais and Pinot Noir). They may even be a little tart. As the color of a red wine gets darker towards maroon and purple, it will become more full-bodied with bolder and richer flavors (e.g., Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon).

Color can also tell you something about a wine's age.  You know that fruit eventually turns brown with age. This is also true of wines. Older white wines become dull in color and can take on orange and brown tones. This is usually an indication of a wine that is well beyond its peak and will likely have nutty flavors due to oxidation.  With red wines, they too take on brownish tones, especially around the rim of the glass. But, with red wines, this doesn't necessarily indicate that they are beyond their peak. Most older red wines (10 years +) will look this way.

So, next time you are poured a glass of wine, stop and take a moment to look at it and see if you can figure out how it will taste even before your first sip. Cheers!

Full Bodied Red Wines

We've explored the various styles of white wines and made it through the light and medium bodied reds. Now it's time to take the final step and look at the big, full bodied red wines.

These full bodied reds are going to be very dark in color, have rich fruit flavors, moderate to high acidity and big tannin. And it's often the tannin in young full bodied reds that will turn people away from these wines. But, given a little breathing space in a decanter, or a few years of cellar time, these can be the best of all wines.

Full bodied red wines are going to be centered around the black fruit flavors of plum, black cherry, fig, boysenberry, black currant, blackberry, raisin and include other flavors such as chocolate, vanilla, leather, tobacco, pepper, and even tar.

Full bodied red wines include:

  • Malbec, Mourvèdre, Nebbiolo and Tempranillo
  • Bordeaux blends (primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot)
  • Rhone Blends including Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre)
  • Italian Super Tuscan blends (Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah
  • Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah and Syrah

Again, it's the tannin that will play a huge role in these full bodied reds.  And tannin is the reason these wines go so well with a steak or other fatty foods.  The tannin acts to cleanse the fats and proteins that collect on your tongue leaving you with a wonderful mouth-feel and an amazing lingering finish. On one end of the scale tannin can be described a 'chewy,' 'muscular,' 'grippy,' or 'firm' and on the other end you may hear words such as 'smooth,' 'soft,' and 'velvety.' Regardless of which end of the spectrum the tannin falls, it is key to the structure of the wine and it's ability to age.

Tannin often gets a bad rap for causing headaches. But if you believe that it's the tannin you need to avoid in red wine, you are also going to have to avoid tea, dark chocolate, nuts, pomegranate, squash, chickpeas, red beans and apple juice all of which all have significant natural tannin.

If you find upon opening a bottle of full bodied red that the tannin is a bit harsh, give it an hour in a decanter that allows the wine maximum surface area for exposure to the air. Quite often you'll find that this will soften it out and make it less harsh. Or, lay the bottle down in a properly controlled cellar or wine refrigerator for five to ten years. The tannin in these big reds will soften with age and reward your patients with a really nice, smooth wine.

Pair one of these full bodied red wines with a nice steak or some flavorful cheese and enjoy. Cheers!


Some More Thoughts on Medium and Full Bodied White Wines

Having just examined light bodied white wines and spent a bit of time on Chardonnay, it's time to look into some other white wines that are in the medium body and full body category. These are going to have bigger, fuller flavors than those of the light bodied whites, contain a bit more alcohol and may be aged in oak.

Here are some of the white wines that are considered medium bodied:

Gewürztraminer (go-veertz-tram-ee-ner) - This is a big fruit wine. It's also a very aromatic wine with the fragrance of roses petals, lychee and perfume. Flavors include pink grapefruit, tangerine, peach, mango, apricot and guava. This crisp and fresh flavored wine will typically have sweet undertones while still being dry (low residual sugar). These wines are most famously produced in the Alsace region of France where they can also take on a rich and silky texture with subtle salinity.

Grüner Veltliner (GREW-ner FELT-lee-ner) - Nearly three quarters of all Grüner Veltliner is produced in Austria. This too is a big fruit wine with moderately high acidity. You may find flavors of peach, pear and yellow apple in this wine. The light and zesty versions of this wine are most common and affordable, having crisp acidity and hints of melon and lime. The Austrian Reserve versions can be rich with fruity flavors such as apple, mango and honey along with hints of white pepper.

Sémillon (sem-ee-yawn) - Approximately half of the Sémillon in the world is produced in France with another 25% coming from Australia, and is gaining popularity in California. This is truly a medium bodied wine in all aspects of fruit, acidity and alcohol. Common flavors include lemon, peach, with a waxy mouthfeel and a bit of salinity. Bordeaux blends will include Sémillon along with Sauvignon Blanc. Sémillon is sometimes barrel aged in oak to give it additional richness and flavor.

Marsanne (mar-sohn) - This is a medium-low bodied wine with medium fruit, medium-low acidity but a medium-high alcohol level. Flavors may include Mandarin orange, apricot, and acacia with a slight waxy mouthfeel.

Viognier (vee-own-yay) - This is a big fruit wine with the fragrance of roses, and flavors of peach, mango, and tangerine. Without Malolactic fermentation this wine can also have flavors of lime along with fragrances of flowers and some flavors of mineralality when grown in cool climates. Warmer climate versions of this wine may have flavors of apricot, rose and vanilla. Malolactic fermentation will give this wine richer smoother flavors and reduced acidity.

As previously stated, an oaked Chardonnay is a classic example of either a medium or full bodied white wine, depending on the strength of flavor the oak imparts and if the wine maker takes the additional step of putting the wine through Malolactic Fermentation. And when it comes to full bodied white wines, this is one that everybody knows.

Chardonnay (shar-doe-NAY) - An oaked Chardonnay is a classic example of either a medium or full bodied white wine, depending on the strength of flavor the oak imparts and if the wine maker takes the additional step of putting the wine through Malolactic Fermentation. California Chardonnays of recent past were typically being put through Malolactic Fermentation and aged in new oak to make them a full bodied wine.  These were the Chardonnay's that were referred to as "buttery" due to their big and bold oak flavor and the creamy mouth feel from the conversion of the sharper malic acid (found in green apples) into softer, smoother, creamy lactic acid (found in milk). This process reduces the total acidity such that the wines become softer, rounder and more complex. This trend has largely been reversed such that today most California Chardonnays are either being made un-oaked (often noted on the label), or treated to a lighter dose of oak to allow the fruit flavors to shine through. You can still find a full bodied "buttery" Chardonnay, but they are in the minority.

So there you go with a run through of the various body styles of white wine. Next time we'll start exploring the body of red wines . Tannin is the big difference there. So, until next time, explore some medium and full bodied white wines. Serve them cool, not cold, and enjoy! Cheers!


Medium Bodied and Full Bodied White Wines

Light bodied white wines are a great place to start when learning about and tasting wines.  They are fresh and crisp with bright fruit flavors and high acidity.  So the next step up is into medium bodied and full bodied whites.

As I have been researching and putting together notes on white wines, I've found that it's been tough, as expected, to describe and define a wine's body.  That's because there are not strong lines between the categories of light, medium and full bodied wines.  But the characteristics of alcohol levels, tannin, residual sugar and acidity do give some basic guidance on a wine's body.

While white wine with less than 12.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) would be considered light bodied, medium bodied white wines are said to have 12.5% to 13.5% ABV and full bodied white are those with greater than 13.5% ABV. These are general guidelines, but at least this is one of the few characteristics that is actually shown on a wine's label (ABV percentage is legally required to be printed somewhere on a bottle of wine).

A wine's residual sugar (RS) is also a telling characteristic of its body, but it is directly related to a wine's alcohol level. The lower the alcohol level, the more residual sugar; the higher the alcohol level the lower the alcohol level. So you can expect a light bodied, lower alcohol, wine to have some residual sugar and to have a slightly sweet taste.  The medium and full bodied white wines will have higher alcohol, lower RS and little to no sweetness to them.

The acidity of medium and full bodied white wines is much lower than light body whites.  While the acidity in a light bodied white wine will give it a bright, crisp and mouth watering finish, medium and full bodied white wines will not. These will be richer and smoother.

And finally, there's the characteristic of tannin. This is something that isn't really a factor in white wines. Tannins come from the grapes skin, seeds and stems.  Most every white wine is pressed and the juice is immediately separated from the skins, seeds and stems. So tannin levels are next to zero.  So called "Orange" wines are made from white wine grapes and they to get contact time with the grape skins, seed and stems, giving them the characteristic light orange color (not the flavor of an orange). Tannins do play a huge roll in red wines and we'll say more about this when we address the medium and full bodied red wines in future postings.

In addition these four characteristics, one must consider that a wine's body is also influenced by the wine maker.  The grape variety isn't necessarily the key to determining the body of a wine. Take Chardonnay for example. A Chardonnay that is produced in stainless steel or concrete tanks is considered light bodied. But, if the wine maker chooses to age the Chardonnay in neutral oak it's going to be medium bodied. A Chardonnay that goes through the addition step of Malolactic Fermentation and is aged in new oak will be full bodied.  So, it isn't just the grape variety that determines a wine's body, it's also how it's made.

While Chardonnay is a great example of a medium or full bodied white wine, there are certainly others. And we'll get to them next time. Cheers!