Once I determine the clarity of my wine, the next thing I look at is the color. On the surface, color probably seems to describe—red, white, or rosé, right? Well, of course, but there’s more to it, as the nuances in color can give information on the wine’s grape variety, the growing conditions of those grapes, the vinification techniques used on those grapes, or the amount of aging the wine has done. The important thing to keep in mind with color is that there are really two things to look for—the depth and the hue.
While it’s impossible for me to cover everything color can tell about wine in several paragraphs, there are overarching generalizations that can be made. In terms of aging, as both the red and white wines age, the depth and the hue change. Often, as red wines age, they fade in color, and the wine might transition from a deep purple to a lighter brickish-type color. White wines, on the other hand, generally gain depth, going from a white or light yellow to a deeper amber color.
Intensity is easier to describe than color. For a starting point, I use the descriptors outline by the WSET—water-white, pale, medium, deep, and opaque—as it helps me study. However, there is no strict standard, and often wines will fall somewhere in between, so you just have to use your best judgment.
With all this in mind, I don’t want you to be fooled that intensity is an automatic indicator of age. Some wines have a tendency to be darker colors, while others are naturally lighter colored. Some of this difference is due to the type of grape used to make the wine. For example, a cabernet sauvignon will likely be a darker color (purple or deep ruby) than a pinot noir (medium ruby). Some of the color difference is also due to the climates in which the grapes are grown (hotter climates often = darker wines) and some is due to the fact that the grapes that are used to make the wine have those same color variances in their non-vinified form.
Color depth can also give insight into how a wine has aged. A sauvignon blanc is unlikely to be aged in oak, for example, so it is more likely to be a lighter in color (greenish-lemon) than a chardonnay (lemony-gold) that has spent time aging in oak.
When trying to determine the color, I begin with the WSET color palette (surprise!). The general descriptors are:
Reds—purple, ruby, garnet, or tawny.
Whites—lemon-green, lemon, gold, amber, or brown
Rosé— pink, salmon, orange, or onionskin
My rule of thumb for picking colors is to look for color flecks that enhance or change the red, white, or rosé base. In practice, what this means is that if I determine a wine is purple, I’ve found blue flecks. In a deep or opaque wine, the blue character creates an inky-looking purple that you can’t miss. In a pale or medium purple wine, though, the blue is a lighter tint that is particularly noticeable along the rim, which is where the top of the liquid meets the glass. Garnet works in a similar way. With a garnet colored wine, the orangey tones will become evident in the rim before the whole core transitions to a reddish-orange color. By process of elimination, if you don’t see blue or orange in your red wine, the color is probably ruby.
When thinking about color, it’s helpful to use fixed objects as reference. For example, with white wines, when you think of “lemon,” don’t think of lemon peel, since how many wines are that bright, almost neon yellow? Instead, make the association with the inside of a cut lemon, think of the color of the juice pods. If you’re looking for a gold reference, simply think of jewelry—a watch or a wedding band.
Through all of this, remember that holding your glass at an angle can make a huge difference. Often the nuances in color are evident on the rim of the wine. Most importantly, though, enjoy looking at the color! It can be a lot of fun and create a nice anticipation.