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Steven Spurrier column People & Places Articles
  • Thursday 15 February 2007

Assorted palates and the importance of colour

Assorted palates and the importance of colour

I don’t pay much attention to colour, particularly not with Pinot Noir’. Thus spake Robert Parker, the quote coming to me from Karen MacNeil, wine educator and author of The Wine Bible, with whom he co-hosted a recent tasting in California. This might sound odd from someone whose description of colour in The Wine Advocate often starts with ‘saturated’, but the theme is plain: colour matters less than you might think. 

Michel Bettane, France’s most influential taster, seems to agree. Sitting next to him at a tasting of young Bordeaux a few years ago, I noticed that the box for colour on his tasting sheet uniformly carried the letters RAS, standing, he said, for rien à signaler or ‘nothing to report’.Colour rarely appears in Decanter’s Panel Tasting notes, mainly due to lack of space, yet is always present in Spurrier’s World, so I would like to stress the importance of colour in wine tasting.

Michel Dovaz, who was Bettane’s professeur at l’Académie du Vin, and who has almost as many years of tasting experience as Michael Broadbent – Michel’s birth year, 1928, being better for claret, Michael’s 1927 better for port – told me of the Parisian owner of a fine château in the Médoc, who was present only for the vintage and for the blending. For the latter, he had a wall of the chai freshly whitewashed and a glass of each of the vats placed side by side on a long table. He then instructed his cellar master to hurl the contents of each glass against the wall, pointed with his cane to the paler of them that would be sold off in bulk, and returned to Paris. This pre-oenologist approach seems very sensible, for his wines were highly regarded.

Any wine taster who followed Michael Broadbent’s tasting system (me), or that of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (Jancis Robinson MW admits she is always influenced by colour, but more by reds than whites), takes colour as the start of the tasting process. Apart from what colour shows – a tank-fermented Chardonnay will be paler than the same juice oak-fermented; a Grenache-based Châteauneuf du Pape will be less intense than one heavy with Mourvèdre and Syrah – it is the only element in wine tasting, apart from the alcohol and other analyses, that is a fact. Every single wine can be correctly identified, showing clearly the levels of ripeness, extraction and stage of development relative to grape and region. The rest of the tasting is a personal interpretation of the sensations recorded by the nose and the palate, which is anything but factual.

Moreover, what a wine looks like combines aspect with colour. Clarity and viscosity are simply evident, as is maturity, even weight. Colour can impress falsely, but that is the next step: ‘magnificent deep crimson… but dominated by planky oak and raisiny fruit’, but my point is that colour is there and should be paid attention to. Karen MacNeil tells her students at the Culinary Institute of America not to be influenced by what a wine looks like at first, but to view it as relative to the aromas and flavour. One might as well describe the taste of a Champagne, adding ‘and by the way, it has bubbles’.

While assessing colour seems to me to be a vital step of the wine-tasting

process, it plays a lesser part in wine drinking for pleasure. Colour rarely, with the exception of mature Burgundy or very, very old vintages, changes in the glass, whereas the aroma and flavours certainly do. Michael Broadbent will note colour as soon as the wine is poured, but continue to record what the wine has to say to him at intervals during the meal. While in Singapore recently, I asked Ignatius Chan, owner of the famed Iggy’s restaurant and Asia’s finest palate, what he looked for in a wine: ‘fruit (the expression of grape and vineyard), structure (acidity and tannin), nuances (flavours not discernable in a single sip) and balance (which frames the wine). For big fruity wines you need a strong frame, otherwise the fruit just oozes out over the edges; for fine, elegant wines you hardly see the frame at all.’ At the same dinner, Michael Hill Smith – the superb lush purple of whose Shaw + Smith 2004 Shiraz was impossible to ignore – said that colour was always related to extraction, and was

thus determined by the winemaker, whereas the flavours that evolved over time were more dictated by variety and terroir. One more reason why colour offers insights into immature wines that taste sometimes cannot.  

Having written this, I have just decanted a bottle of Graham’s 1980, my current favourite vintage port. It looks as beautiful as ever. Colour is important for pleasure as well as information.

Steven Spurrier is Decanter’s consultant editor, and a renowned taster

What Steven's Been Drinking This Month

A Little Of Everything

On our twice-yearly visits to Singapore to taste hundreds of wines for Singapore Airlines, the consultants always bring some bottles to complement the generosity of our regular hosts.

Michael Hill Smith’s Clos Ste Hune Riesling 2000 was poised and firm, but less intense than usual; my Bouchard Père & Fils Corton-Charlemagne 1999 was floral yet restrained with magnificent stone fruit and a fine future; Karen MacNeil’s Shafer Hillside Select Merlot 1995 was the showstopper, marvellously rich, concentrated vineyard fruit, multi-layered with smooth tannins.

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