Wine Colour: Colour Palette, not Palate
- Thursday 2 April 2009
Pity the poor wine tasters.
It’s such an effort to find the exact word to describe the red wine in front of them – a wrestle between garnet, ruby, purple, blue, lobster – and to distinguish it sensibly from the
next one in the line-up. Yet, after all that, 99.9% of published tasting notes never refer to the colour.
What space is available is given over to aroma and the palate.
Yet, every wine student learns at the outset that a good tasting note begins by systematically describing how the wine looks.
We tussle over the gradations of ‘green’, ‘water white’, ‘primrose’, ‘pale gold’, ‘light gold’, ‘amber’, and the depth of the watery rim. Using this routine of accurate and thorough tasting is essential: wine shows and competitions always require a mark for the colour, but there’s no doubt that it’s frustrating for the writer when the editor subsequently slices out
that carefully selected adjective.
Why, then, does any taster bother commenting on colour? After all, as one retailer pointed out briskly, ‘Apart from deciding on red or white, no one ever bought a wine because of its colour.’
That’s especially true if it’s hidden from view in a brown or green bottle. However, once the bottle is open and the wine poured, it seems that the colour reinforces our good or bad opinion of the wine, even though opinions may be conflicting.
At Germany’s Geisenheim Research Institute’s commercial winery, scientists found that consumers had opposing views about their Pinot Noir. ‘Some complained it was too pale,’ says Professor Monica Christmann, ‘while others said, “Finally we have found a typical Pinot Noir”.’
When they followed this up with a test and served identical wine from different bottles, they found consumers preferred the wine that had been artificially coloured a deeper red. This, despite the fact that depth of colour does not correlate with strength of alcohol.
Syrah, frequently a deep and glossy dark red, is one such example.
Another, though perhaps more extreme, is red Vinho Verde, which has plenty of colour but is light in alcohol.
In Washington State’s Columbia Valley, Bob Betz MW of Betz Family Winery has studied customers’ responses: ‘Most consumers want a red wine that has a deep hue. We invest a lot of our psychic and physical resources in achieving a deep, black red-to-purple colour.’
It’s not just for consumers that colour matters.
Michael Silacci, chief winemaker at Opus One, stresses: ‘Colour is important and I do not take it for granted. It is one of the variables to which I pay attention when getting to know a new vineyard.’
Where, then, does the colour come from?
A white wine can be made from a white (actually a yellow-, pink- or amber-coloured) grape, but also from a black one. The classic example is Champagne, where all but the blanc de blancs are made partially or totally from black grapes.
Red wines can only be made from black grapes. The colour is in the skins. Just a
few varieties have coloured flesh. These, such as Alicante Bouschet, are known as
teinturiers – ‘dyers’ – for the way they can be used to boost colour.
Good colour, like aroma, ripeness and tannins, begins with work in the vineyard.
In Bordeaux, Dourthe estates manager Frédéric Bonnaffous outlines the meticulous activity, stressing that the process begins with matching grape varieties and rootstocks to the soil, and also, in the case of reds, ‘adapting the vine to the available water, which will at
some point influence the ripening process of the grapes and, as a consequence, the
synthesis of the colour components’.
Once in the winery, colour, like aroma, is extracted by controlling the time the juice is in contact with the skins before the alcoholic fermentation starts (often referred to as the ‘cold soak’). Extraction may be enhanced by heat, and by moving the liquid and the skins.
The masters in the art of rapid colour extraction are the Port producers who have to get all the colour they can before stopping the fermentation process midway through, by fortification. Adrian Bridge, MD of the Fladgate Partnership, is keen on colour.
‘It’s critical for us,’ he says. ‘When you only have three days of skin contact it is a preoccupation. That’s why we continue to tread the grapes.’
Elsewhere in the red-wine world producers use language akin to boxing – from pump-overs to punch-downs – to describe the vigorous processes all aimed at getting the same effect. This extraction process is not just aimed at an appealing red colour.
The point is that once the anthocyanins start reacting with the tannins – in the stalks, the seeds, the oak barrels – then stable ‘chains’ will begin to be formed to fix the colour. ‘The geeky way of looking at this is that anthocynanins are purple/magenta/blue pignments that
are expressed earlier on in fermentation and are shortlived,’ says Betz.
‘Tannins are redder pigments and are typically released by the skins further along fermentation. A link between anthocyanins and tannins is essential for great colour.’
That’s why some winemakers add tannins (extracted from grapes or chestnuts) to
make sure the polymerisation takes place.
The depth and style of colour are affected by any number of variables: the variety, the vine age and exposure, the vineyard, the vintage. The condition of the grapes makes a difference – wines from nobly rotted grapes have a wonderful golden hue; wines with a low pH (a high natural acidity) will be brighter and have more blue notes.
The winemaker can help the process along by adding enzymes early in the fermentation to help release the colour from the skins. Adding sulphur dioxide to the juice as part of the winemaking process also has the side-effect of aiding the extraction of colour.
Traditions & trends
Before this discussion of the processes becomes too technical, let a biodynamic producer add some poetry to the proceedings.
Nuno Araújo of Quinta da Covela exclaims when asked if he thinks about the colour: ‘No! I am not concerned with the varnish of a painting. I am concerned with the painting itself.
Nature tells you the right colour.’
Though he does admit that when it comes to his whites and rosés, he does take care to avoid oxidation.
All this European talk about colour surprises Peter Schulz from Turkey Flat in the Barossa Valley. ‘In Australia we don’t lack colour. We get all our colour in the first 48 hours.’ Schulz also has his own spin on an old tradition – co-fermentation.
In the old days, co-fermenting Syrah with Viognier was a natural habit in a mixed vineyard. The benefit was that it helped fix the colour of the wine, and just a little Viognier gave a heady perfume.
The practice has been revived today. The colour may be vibrant and glossy, but the wine is overly sweet and alcoholic. His Turkey Flat Shiraz is co-fermented with a little Marsanne but ‘we don’t declare it on the bottle’.
In the Clare Valley, Adam Eggins, chief winemaker at Wakefield, agrees about reds: ‘Generally our red wine colours are very strong; white wines are harder to manage. Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer can be fascinating to work with, as Gris wants to go grey or, more to the point, onion skin, and Gewurz has a habit of turning pink, albeit temporarily.’
When it comes to white wines, the focus is on how long the juice spends in contact with the skins and with oxygen. The lees (the spent yeasts) also have a part to play, as a white wine can be polished and brightened by time spent sitting on its lees.
Jerez, the Sherry-making region, has traditionally produced wines in a rainbow of colours. But today Manzanilla and Fino producers are faced with a demand for ever paler wines. Javier Hidalgo is vocal about the Manzanilla drinkers of Seville who insist on waterywhite
In Seville, as in San Francisco and Southend, fashion plays an important part.
White wines generally are getting ever paler – Chardonnays more lemon, Rieslings more green. Consumers have come to want less obvious oak, and associate golden wines with oak or with excessive ripeness.
Commercial rosés can be darker than many light reds, while red wines have taken to
becoming black. Michael Silacci is a wry observer of the trend: ‘I’ve found that winemakers,
especially those making red wines, have a bit of a complex if their wines do not have good colour intensity and hue.’
Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson in South Africa feels strongly about this creeping loss of lighter colours, and agrees with Christian Moueix of Château Pétrus, who said last year (Decanter, April 2008): ‘Black wines have become all the rage over the past 20 years – I prefer wines to be red.’
Both men are set to be disappointed, as the fashion remains for glossy, dark wines. In Portugal, Bridge has his own battles to fight over colour. ‘Our Tawnies are aged in Vila Nova de Gaia. As a result, our 10 Year Old will be darker than one aged up the Douro.’
Those who do need to adjust the colour of their wines risk compromising the quality. In Jerez, for instance, Fino and Manzanilla producers may resort to charcoal to take the colour out of their wines.
Charcoal, like filtration, is a process that casts a shadow over the glinting glass of good wine. It’s undoubtedly a brisk treatment and lessens the beauty and texture of a fine Sherry.
If you want to find the fuller flavour and deeper colour that goes with it, follow Hidalgo’s advice: ‘My grandfather would drink an eight to 12-year-old Manzanilla that was on the way to being an Amontillado.’
Get the same effect today with a Manzanilla pasada. It’s not too glib to say there is more to colour than meets the eye.
Fortunately, there are individuals who are prepared to set it to one side. Master Sommelier Ronan Sayburn of London’s Greenhouse restaurant can win any customer over. ‘Colour of wine isn’t the issue, it’s flavour,’ he says. ‘It’s possible to educate people to enjoy wines with a very pale colour – like Grenache Gris, Tiburon and Cinsault.’
In Austria, meanwhile, Willi Brundlmayer gives the beatific smile of a man unworried by
fashions in colour: ‘If the wine is authentic, it can be different and still be good. A great wine will always find a consumer.'