It bothers me that wine drinkers frequently choose wine based on colour, or indeed dismiss those of the “wrong” colour. I have encountered this discrimination most overtly in the rosé genre, as illustrated by the regularity of this exchange, or variations thereof, at my Cambridge wine shop/bar:
“I’d like a rosé.”
“What kind of rosé?”
“A nice pale one.”
“Why? Are you going to drink it or wear it?”
While the blush pink Whispering Angels of the world are undoubtedly pretty, dismissing a wine due to its hue is like swiping on Tinder without reading the bio. The wine you have chosen as your match smells as generic as the opener “hows your day?” (apostrophe deliberately missing). But hey, some people enjoy generic. Perhaps there is an occasion for generic – for the same people who enjoy Prosecco and Pinot Grigio.
Pale rosé is like a high maintenance lover, a Kardashian, if you will. Do you know how much energy goes into keeping rosés pale? Chilling grapes reduces colour seepage from skins (the flesh of most grapes is colourless), so some producers go as far as almost freezing their grapes to produce the palest wine. Since pigment is extracted conjointly with aroma and tannin, those imbibers of pale rosé are missing out on a whole world of flavour, body and structure.
The most wonderful rosés I have tasted have been deeply coloured, umami, textural, and long: Nicole Tapon’s Clairet, Tondonia Rosado, Thymiopoulos Rosé De Xinomavro, and Hundred Hills Rosé de Saignée to name a few. The only pallid exception was Gérard Bertrand’s Clos du Temple, which is a remarkable wine. Simpson’s Derringstone Meunier was intense and unashamedly dark until 2022, when the wine lost its colour, and with it, most of its flavour. You’d snog a Kardashian, but the Nathalie Portman of wine is who you’d ultimately commit to.
While this vinous racism is most overt for pink wines, red, white, and orange wines are also victims. When someone asks me for a pale white wine, the likelihood is that they had a bad experience with some heavily oaked Chardonnay. Oak is not directly responsible for the deeper hue – it’s the micro-oxidation that permeable oak vessels permit (think of a neglected peeled apple turning brown). But many producers mature wines in old, used oak barrels, which impart texture and body to wine without the typical vanilla, spice, toast, and coconut that some dislike.
The flavours developed through oxidation (dried fruits, honey, walnuts, toasted hazelnuts, coffee, toffee) are so complex and appealing that many great, utterly delicious wines are made by deliberate oxidation, often over decades: Think Vin Jaune, oloroso sherry, Madeira, Tawny Port, Vin Doux Naturel, Vin Santo (Tuscan) and Vinsanto (Greek). Surely a list to make one swoon?
White wines also turn gold with bottle age. A decade-old Hunter Valley Semillon, hermetically sealed under screw cap, would not have seen so much as a chip of oak in its youth, or indeed much oxygen at bottling, but has evolved toast, and roasted nuts along with colour. Once tasted, it is never forgotten.
When I have persuaded these drinkers to be adventurous, they have remarked, “I thought I hated Chardonnay.”, to which the response has been, “What you hated was poorly made wine that lacked balance.”
The most common red drinker stereotype is the full-bodied one: he who sighs over a deep glass of juicy Primitivo, Argentine Malbec, or softly oaked Rioja, but stares askance at a pale Oregon Pinot Noir. An astonishing 80% of China’s wine consumption is red because white wine “doesn’t look like wine”. The irony is that due to a national genetic lack of alcohol dehydrogenase, the Chinese turn red when they drink haha.
People often ask me how I got into wine. The answer? Blind wine tasting. A friend booked us into an introductory session and I got hooked. The beauty of “blind” tasting is that the appearance of the wine is used in an objective process of mental deduction, rather than a value judgment. When combined with knowledge of viticulture and winemaking, a glass of wine becomes a fascinating jigsaw of cause and effect, to be enjoyed at an intellectual as well as hedonistic level. When these two components align, it’s really quite beautiful. I also enjoy that with age, white wines darken and turn tawny, while red wines pale and turn tawny. This convergence means that with sufficient age, it is impossible to ascertain at a glance the hue with which the wine started its life.
There is so much to discover in wine that to dismiss any category of wine seems short-sighted and sensorially limiting. Wines I admire less include varietal Malbec, Chablis, Prosecco, and wines that declare themselves “natural”, but I remain happy to be proved wrong. Anthony Hamilton Russell’s after-dinner advice has stuck with me, an excellent mantra by which to live and explore wine: Drink promiscuously.
Photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash