What can you discern from a wine’s appearance?

Two things I shared with my Dad were classical music and a love of great art. The first, music, was a vital part of my life from fourth grade all the way into my mid-30’s. During that time, I earned two music degrees and had a short career playing freelance classical trumpet in San Francisco. The second, my love of painting, goes all the way back to around 1960 when my dad ordered a series of books called Metropolitan Seminars in Art, written by Robert Canaday and published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The set comprised 12 volumes, each focused on a specific era or style of art. With the arrival of a new volume in the mail, each costing a whopping $4.09, Dad and I would take time to go through the book.

I have many memories of sitting with him on the living room sofa looking at reproductions of the great paintings printed on thick glossy paper that accompanied each volume. I recall him saying many times that this or that painting was “beautiful” or “gorgeous” or “amazing.” I also clearly remember him emphatically telling me, “this is important. Art is important. It’s one of the greatest things man has ever done.” Mind you, I didn’t connect with my Dad on many levels. So the two exceptions—music and art—became near and dear.

To this day, I’m a huge fan of painting from practically any era from the 12th century on. Two favorites are Renaissance Italy and Impressionism. For Italy and the Renaissance, the room at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence housing all the Botticelli works is Mecca to me. I’ve been there twice and it changed my life both times. l’m also a huge fan of Impressionist painting. Last summer I was in Chicago for books events and spent two mornings at the Art Institute, one of my favorite museums. It’s home to one of the finest Impressionist collections outside of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

I love Impressionist art for how it represents nature and people in nature so subjectively, which was an enormous departure for painting at the time. With the use of remarkably beautiful colors, nuances of light and shadow, much of what is conveyed on the canvas is implied but not precisely depicted. The artist has left it to the viewer to fill in the gaps internally, and each of us does so in our own way. It’s as if impressionism is the indirect communication of the art world.

Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, completed in 1889, is the painting that immediately comes to mind. Though technically Post-Impressionist, The Starry Night continues to astound with its dramatic use of color, intensity of emotion, and almost shocking application of paint on the canvas. The creative energy that became The Starry Night can only be described as electric. In looking at the painting, we get the slightest glimpse into what was the tumult of Van Gogh’s inner world.

Unconscious Inference and the Wine Experience

Daniel Levitan is a Stanford-trained psychologist who also has a successful career as a recording engineer and producer. In his book, This is Your Brain on Music, he combines both disciplines to explore how the brain can be profoundly influenced by listening to music. He writes: 

“Much of what we see and hear contains missing information. Our hunter gatherer ancestors might have seen a tiger partially hidden by trees, or heard a lion’s roar partly obscured by the sound of leaves rustling much closer to us. Sounds and sights often come to us as partial information that has been obscured by other things in the environment. A perceptual system that can restore missing information would help us to make quick decisions in threatening situations. Better to run now than sit and try to figure out if those two separate, broken pieces of sound were part of a lion’s roar.”

Levitan writes further that the great perceptual psychologist Hermann von Helmholz calls this process “unconscious inference,” meaning that “what we hear and see is the end of a long chain of mental events that give rise to an impression, a mental image, of the physical world. Many of the ways in which our brains function—including our senses of color, taste, smell, and hearing—arose due to evolutionary pressures, some of which no longer exist.”

Your Brain on Wine

What does Impressionism in art and unconscious inference in music have to do with wine? Good question. I’ve often thought about the importance of expectation when looking at a glass of wine. How our memories of previous wines in regards to color, texture, and other aspects create expectations when looking at a new glass of wine in the moment. And how we fill in the blanks with a new glass of wine using previous experience.

I’ve also questioned the value of previous experience when looking at a new glass of wine. Should we allow memory to influence our perception of an unfamiliar wine? Or should we attempt to view each new glass of wine as a unique experience? Some years ago I had a long conversation with a good friend and industry colleague on this very topic. She said she tried to approach each wine as something new and unique; she wanted to avoid judging a new wine based on previous experience. I respected her viewpoint, but also wondered if it was possible given the concept of unconscious inference mentioned above.

Personally, I’m a firm believer in the value of memory when it comes to tasting wine. To an experienced taster, the simple act of tilting the glass forward to have a close look at a wine can—and should—build instant expectations as far as the possible grape variety, the fruit ripeness at harvest, the climate of origin, and various winemaking techniques. Further, the structural elements including the levels of acidity, alcohol, and tannin. For example, looking at a glass of red wine that’s lighter in color can create expectations in terms of a thinner-skinned grape variety grown in a cooler climate with red fruit dominating the nose and palate, pronounced non-fruit elements, and the structure of the wine offering less alcohol, higher natural acidity, and moderate tannins. 

Obviously, this is anything but hard science. One can always be surprised when initial expectations aren’t met. But using memories of previous wines can be useful in blind tasting practice and exams, as well as associative rehearsal/visualization without actually tasting. Given that, here a number of different scenarios as they relate to the appearance of a wine. All should help to connect the dots between a wine’s appearance and other facets in the glass.

White wine scenario I: Light/pale color

  • Youth
  • Possible cooler climate/vintage
  • Possible anaerobic fermentation (stainless steel)
  • Lack of new oak aging
  • Possible lighter body
  • Possible less alcohol
  • Possible higher natural acidity
  • Tarter—less ripe—fruit quality

White wine scenario II: Deep yellow or gold color

  • Warmer climate/riper vintage
  • Oxidative winemaking/overall age
  • Possible extended aging in new oak
  • Possible botrytis
  • Possible phenolic bitterness
  • Possible higher alcohol
  • Possible lower natural acidity with potential for acidulation
  • Riper fruit quality

Red Wine Scenario I: Lighter Color

  • Thinner skinned/lighter pigmented grape variety
  • Cooler climate/vintage
  • Less overall ripeness
  • Red fruit dominant
  • Possible higher natural acidity
  • Possible lower alcohol
  • Possible less overall tannin
  • Possible more non-fruit elements

Red Wine Scenario II: Deeper color

  • Thicker skinned/deeper pigmented grape variety
  • Warmer climate / vintage
  • Dark fruit dominant
  • More overall ripeness of fruit
  • Higher alcohol
  • Possible lower natural acidity with potential for acidulation
  • Possible higher tannin
  • Possible residual sugar
  • Extreme cases: less varietal definition
  • Possible less non-fruit elements (fruit-dominant wine)

Pink or purple color

  • Youth
  • Lack of extending oak aging


  • Age in barrel or bottle and/or oxidative winemaking
  • Possible thin skinned varieties (i.e., Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Grenache)


  • Quickly forming, thinner and quickly moving tears/legs
    • Lower alcohol
    • Possible cooler climate
    • Lack of residual sugar
    • Lower dry extract
  • Slower forming, thicker and slower moving tears/legs
    • Higher alcohol
    • Warmer climate growing region
    • Possible presence of residual sugar
    • Higher dry extract

Staining of the tears in red wines

  • Thicker skinned grape
  • Concentrated wine
  • Possible warmer climate
  • Higher dry extract

Learn Everything About Wine

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