If only it were so simple,
to cruise through life smelling roses;
but the obstacles blacken the countryside,
and we unwittingly crush them beneath our boots.

– author unknown

Wine lovers can be forgiven if they interpret this verse to describe not the mistakes a person can make that lead to isolation, but instead a bottle of Barolo. After all, what better way to smell roses than to open a bottle of traditional Piedmontese Nebbiolo?

If only, indeed. For those who love the classically styled wines of Piedmont, or so many other regions, there have been obstacles that blacken the wines. It is a focus on wine’s color—red wine in particular—that borders on obsession. And in that pursuit of darker and darker color comes the occasional obscuring of the roses, the elimination of the varietal character that so many consumers cherish.

The good news is that there is a transition underway. But it’s helpful to start with a basic understanding of how so many of us became so entranced with something so superficial as a wine’s color.

Wine critic Robert Parker has been celebrating opaque wines for three decades. His tasting notes for red wines regularly include a description of the wine’s color, and among top scorers, “opaque” is a common descriptor.

James Suckling was the Bordeaux critic for Wine Spectator for many years. Now working on his own, he recently explained that he sets aside 15 points out of 100 for a wine’s color. He followed up with this video in which he contends that “the best Brunellos have color.” And not light color, in case you were wondering. (He also includes the real howler that he’s heard people say it’s “impossible for Sangiovese such as a Brunello di Montalcino to be violet or ruby color.” That’s a heck of a straw man, but we digress.)

At Spectator, Suckling awarded 100 points to 17 red Bordeaux that were tasted at a young age. Combing through his tasting notes for those 17 wines, we find that 10 include references to color. All 10 of those wines are described by Suckling as being either dark or black. It’s not difficult to determine whether Suckling prefers dark color when you read tasting notes like the one he penned for the 1989 Haut Brion: “Good, dark color.” More confusing is the note he wrote for the 2006 Fontodi Flaccianello (to which he awarded 99 points): “Shows excellent color for a Sangiovese.” Does this mean that a Sangiovese’s more typical ruby color is somehow lacking? We’re left to wonder. Or, more accurately, we assume that’s the case.

On Twitter I recently asked James Suckling why, if color is so important to him, he chooses to assess color in sub-optimal lighting. After all, he explained in the Brunello video that judging color outdoors, in natural light, is the best way to truly see color in wine. But in previous videos he demonstrated how he assesses color indoors, near a flickering fire or in various lab settings. The lighting is inconsistent and, if he believes natural light is superior, he’s judging wine in sub-optimal conditions.

You might wonder: So what? What’s the difference if it only impacts a wine’s score by a point or two? I’d reply that any winemaker can tell you the difference between a wine that’s 89 points and 91 points. The market changes instantly. And imagine, public perception and selling power diminished all because a critic has junky track lights!

In response to Suckling’s habit of observing wine’s color in various forms of light, David Zylberberg, a wine aficionado who has worked as a geologist and geochemist, scoffed. “You can buy portable lamps with specific color temperatures and light intensity,” Zylberberg said. “They’re used for consistent evaluation of colored gemstones. Suckling should invest in one—they’re not hugely expensive—if he’s grading wines for color.”

Here’s an example of the kind of light Zylberberg is talking about: a color grading lamp for $60, or less than half the cost of one subscription to JamesSuckling.com.

But isn’t that going a little overboard? Zylberberg offered an interesting parallel as he pointed me to this article. See if this sounds like a debate about wine:

Differences in lighting will alter the way color is perceived by grader and, ultimately, customer. When lighting sources are inconsistent, it can cost dealers thousands of dollars. At the same time, tricks of the trade that enhance certain colors can cost the industry in terms of credibility.

This passage comes from a piece about evaluating gemstones. The author writes about the movement to create a lighting standard for evaluating gems, because people “in a dimly lit shack” are making color evaluations that “determine whether companies make or lose money.”

Geologists and gem lovers are much less likely to claim they can evaluate color without controlling the setting. “Daylight is much bluer than incandescent light, which is very red-shifted,” Zylberberg explained. “Not only will wines show redder in incandescent light, but redder wines will have a more vibrant color in incandescent light. Similarly, wines will show more blue or purple in daylight color temps and wines with more blue will appear more vividly colored in daylight.”

To his credit, Suckling took the time to address this question on Twitter. He told me, “I have been tasting for 29 years. I know how to judge color.” He then added, “Giving points for color works for me, UC Davis, and lots of people.”

But there is a shift underway that indicates we might want to hold off on purchasing those Diamond Color Grading lamps. It turns out not everyone thinks color deserves so much attention.

Antonio Galloni, who recently took over the rating of California wines from Parker for The Wine Advocate, is not nearly so focused on color. And James Molesworth, who took over the rating of Bordeaux wines for Wine Spectator, almost never writes about color in red wines. A quick scan of the 20 highest scoring Châteauneuf-du-Papes from Molesworth reveals not a single mention of color.

“Color in and of itself is not a prerequisite for quality,” Molesworth told me. “There are darkly colored wines that are good, and darkly colored wines that are not good. Ditto for lightly colored wines.” (Disclosure: Molesworth wrote the foreword for my forthcoming book; I asked him to write it because I respect his approach to evaluating wines).

“Darker color is not better or worse,” Molesworth continued. “It can indicate aspects of the wine’s origin, viticulture or vinification, but that is just background context. I don’t expect Châteauneufs to be darkly colored for example, because some great ones are (like Beaucastel) and some great ones are not (like Rayas). In contrast, Argentine Malbecs are nearly all dark in color—the Malbec is thick-skinned there, due largely to the extra UV radiation from being at such extreme altitude. So, more polyphenols and anthocyanins equals more color. But that does not mean all Argentina Malbecs are great wines, simply because they are darkly colored.”

But before anyone concludes that evaluating a wine based on color is meaningless, we should answer the question: So what is color in wine telling us, anyway?

“If color has a meaning for a wine evaluator it is basically as a verification that something’s amiss,” Dan Berger, competition director and author of Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences, told me. “When I smell a young wine and detect a small amount of oxidation, a hint of brown or a tawniness in color can verify that the wine may well have been treated inappropriately at the winery. Similarly, color can indicate maderization, which is seen in the aroma and the taste as a negative. (Except in Madeira!)”

Berger recalled a light-colored wine that recently showed beautifully.

“Recently I opened a 1968 Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo that was light in color and faintly brownish at the edges. Had this been a young wine, the color would have tipped me off to the fact that it likely was past its prime. But as a 1968, this wine was utterly fabulous. In fact, the color of this wine didn’t change much over the next 90 minutes and the aroma simply got better and better. There was almost no oxidative aroma, despite the brown rim.”

Over the past several decades, Berger has seen wine color become progressively darker, but he’s not at all convinced it’s a factor in sales. “I don’t know a single person on this planet who will be encouraged to buy a wine because it looks great,” he said. “I look at color as a kind of afterthought. You do not smell the color and you do not taste the color. And since wine is to be sniffed and sipped, I see no real need to worry about whether a wine has the ‘proper’ color.”

With more writers and critics moving their focus away from color, it seems likely that more winemakers will, too. As John Holdredge, owner and winemaker of a small eponymous operation in the Russian River Valley told me, “Why worry about color? Who cares about color?”

On a recent winter evening, my wife and I drank a Mascarello of our own. This bottle was a 2001 Giuseppe Mascarello, and our friends guessed it to be a Pinot Noir. What wine could show such power and grace without such a dense, dark color?

This wine was almost anachronistic, a reminder of the range of color Nebbiolo can yet show. Some wonderful Barolo and Barbaresco wines are dark in color. Some are lighter-shaded, structured and memorable. But there need not be this color mania that leads some to dismiss a wine before experiencing it. Swirling the Mascarello in the glass, I noticed my fingers on the other side, through the wine. I smiled. We were smelling roses, with no obstacles to blacken the countryside.


Evan Dawson is the author of Summer in a Glass, a book about Finger Lakes winemakers. Evan is also the  Finger Lakes Editor for the New York Cork Report. His paid job includes offering his best Ron Burgundy impersonation as a morning news anchor and political reporter for WHAM-TV in Rochester, NY.

About The Author

Evan Dawson
Staff Writer

Evan Dawson is the author of Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes. It won the 2012 Roederer International Wine Book of the Year. Outside of Palate Press, his wine writing has been published in Wine Spectator, Tasting Panel Magazine, and the New York Cork Report, for which he serves as Managing Editor. He hosts The Connection on WXXI radio, the NPR affiliate in western New York, where he focuses on community affairs. He is a middling but enthusiastic cook.

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  • MURRAY L ROSS

    MR DAWSON
    I AM A FORMER ROCHESTERIAN
    GREW UP TASTING GREAT WINES IN THE 60’S AND 70’S TASTING WITH SHERWIN @ CENTURY
    ENJOYED YOUR COLUMN ON COLOR
    WOULD BE INTERESTED IN YOUR OBSERVATIONS ON FINGER LAKES WINES
    HOW DOES DR FRANK STACK UP VS.OTHER PRODUCERS
    FOR THE LAST 16 YEARS HAVE HAD A LABOR OF LOVE REPRESENTENTING AS A DISTRIBUTOR
    WINES IN PENNSYLVANIA
    DO NOTMAKE MUCH $$$ BUTSTILL GET A KICK OUT OF SEEING MY WINES IN RESTAURANTS

    BEST REGARDS

    MURRAY L ROSS

    • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

      Murray – You must mean Sherwood Deutsch, the great Burgundy lover and store owner! Very cool.

      Dr. Frank continues to produce a range of high-quality wines. Their TBA-style Riesling, for example, is wonderful. Their sparkling wines help set the regional standard. Do they make the best wine in the Finger Lakes? Probably not consistently, but then, they’ve very successfully moved from 5,000 cases (when you were here) to 60,000 cases today. That’s not easy.

      Hermann J. Wiemer, Ravines, Anthony Road, Heart & Hands, and a handful of others lead the list. But that list is growing.

      Cheers and thanks for the comment. What led you to find the article?

  • Dan Berger

    Good job.

    • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

      Thanks, Dan. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions on color. Very much appreciated.

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  • Bob Goehring

    I stopped taking color into account in rating wines on a personal and professional level 20 years ago. Wines can be arresting visually, but it’s in the nose and on the palate where you get the goods. Good article, and good for you for exposing the baloney the Wine Spectator et al pumps out.

    • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

      There’s a lot of baloney, indeed, Bob. But I think Spectator is largely moving on, with perhaps an exception or two.

  • Charlie Custer

    Great article, and being relatively new to wine appreciation, there’s much here to chew on — thanks. My only counter-point would be to mention that in my limited experience, I’ve found that darker wines tend more often to contain the specific flavor profile that — at this point in my evolution — bring me pleasure: blackberry reduction, coffee bean, chocolate, a certain loaminess…I’ll stop before I embarrass myself further! But is it not true that depth of color can be a decent though not foolproof indication of flavor, particularly for the fledgling oenophile ? Enjoyed your article.

    • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

      Charlie – You’re not embarrassing yourself at all! But let me address a couple of points there.

      You say, “I’ve found that darker wines tend more often to contain the specific flavor profile that — at this point in my evolution — bring me pleasure: blackberry reduction, coffee bean, chocolate, a certain loaminess.”

      Coffee bean and chocolate are often associated with oak, and you can get those flavors in wines that are light in color. I’ve seen that just recently. Regarding blackberry reduction, it’s probably right that you’re much more likely to get those notes in a darker wine. Loaminess can (thankfully!) show up in a wide range of red wines.

      You also write, “Is it not true that depth of color can be a decent though not foolproof indication of flavor?”

      I understand why you feel this way, and I’ve been there myself, but I think the simple answer is no. Yes, it’s true that overcropped, thin wines or wines from disastrous vintages will often appear lighter in the glass. But the notion that darkness = flavor is a red herring. Perhaps a black herring, or at least an opaque one! Black wines can be monolithic in flavor, thick and one-dimensional. (Please, please note that I don’t mean all black wines are this way.) Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir can offer some of the most complex, mind-bending flavor profiles you’ll ever see, and you can read a book through the wine. Same with Chinon. And we’re just getting started. In a very general sense, I’d argue that good winemakers who are unconcerned with dark color are more likely to create a wine of complex flavor with medium color, as compared to good winemakers who put dark color as a priority.

      We’ve veered into generalizations, but I’ll conclude by saying that you’re going to be thrilled with that first light Nebbiolo that overwhelms your expectations.

      • Charlie Custer

        I’m learning — this is very good! Your article and ensuing remarks are quite enough to persuade me. As for veering into generalizations…well, that’s my territory when it comes to wine. Perhaps, like many who start out to comprehend a vast subject, I’ve relied on them a little too much, a little too long. I’ll accept your suggestion and look out for a good, affordable Nebbiolo. Thank you.

        • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

          Charlie – You’re very kind. We often generalize because, well, there’s often a good reason to do so. I just happen to think that wine can trap us that way.

          Nebbiolo can be expensive when it’s Barolo or Barbaresco, but a good Langhe Nebbiolo might be a nice starting point.

    • Nydia Burdick

      Charlie, you just described my sort of wine! But I had to have all those flavors named for me. I don’t think my palate is that great what with my severe allergies. But now I know how to describe what I like!!!

  • Nydia Burdick

    Some rules or ratings make honest people/winemakers dishonest. This is why there are vineyards are coloring their wines. It’s crazy. I’m a chemist and why would I want something to possibly even change the taste of the wine??? Bring on the blind taste tests!

    • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

      Nydia – You mean, blind taste tests in a black glass, right? I’ve never tasted wine from a black glass, but I’m very curious to know how it would affect me.

      • Nydia Burdick

        I don’t know Evan maybe a straw into a completely covered glass. However lol easier to blindfold the taster. I’m off of wine for Lent and I know that when I don’t drink wine for a few weeks, it tastes different to me. So do I think expectations add to the palate—I think that happens–especially when you pay a lot for a bottle.

  • http://www.compasswinesandspirits.com Joe Jensen

    Evan,
    Great article on color. I fight this all the time when pouring for the public and sometimes wine buyers and try to educate them on the fact that color is not indicative of the flavor or weight of the wine. One example I use is from Dwayne Dappen of D-Cubed winery who makes Zinfandel. He told me that at a tasting once he had his Howell Mountain Zin last in the tasting. A customer asked him why he was pouring such a light colored wine last and Dwayne simply said to trust him and taste the way he lined it up. Obviously the wine was powerful and delicious and taught a valuable lesson to that consumer.
    Another point I will make is that I come from the commercial printing industry where any quality shop had 5000 Kelvin lighting in the color correction department and in the press room for consistent viewing conditions. If Parker and Suckling are not evaluating color under a consistent lighting source they are full of %*@& and are misleading the general public on color.
    I’d love to hear any other thoughts here!
    Joe

    • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

      Joe – Great story from D-Cubed. Just another vivid example.

      Regarding special lighting, I kind of figured that section of the article could be summed up like this: Isn’t it a little ridiculous that we’re talking about specialized lamps? Shouldn’t that remind us how silly this obsession with color is?

      But I don’t think Suckling and Parker are intentionally misleading the public. I think they truly value dark color, and they’re so excited with it that they never stop to ask how the color got that way (myriad possibilities) nor do they question the consistency of the lighting they’re using. I appreciate the fact that Mr. Suckling has been doing this for 30 years, but vision does not improve to a point of being able to accurately assess color in a poorly lit cellar, for example.

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  • http://palatepress.com Ryan Reichert

    Wholly agree that color is not indicative of flavor or quality. That perception is completely ridiculous, and I’m glad you’ve spoken up against it.

    That said, I do strongly believe that—while there is always a range—that color is very important in evaluating wine. Perhaps not when using a scoring perspective, but from the position of considering varietal/geographical/vintage correctness. Unfortunately there are a lot of variables (not to even start talking about the actual winemaking process, ie: longer cold soaking = increased depth of color) so it’s an evolving experience.

    As an example though, if you see a super inky, or black Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley’s 2007 vintage, you can be sure something is amiss. In this regard color can be quite telling. Regardless, it’s not every going to stop me from putting the wine in my mouth! ;-)

    Nicely written article, as always, Evan. Glad to have you making Palate Press all the better with your contributions.

    R

    • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

      Ryan –

      We don’t disagree. Color can be highly useful in tipping you off that something is askew. If a wine is overly light or overly dark, given variety or vintage or expectations, it’s a red flag. And obvious signs of ATA or premature aging come into play.

      ALso, I have no issue with marveling romantically at how pretty a wine can be. I do it all the time. I just don’t fool myself into thinking that kind of beauty should be weighted very heavily when it comes to evaluation.

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