by Charlie Leary

The Colour and Clarity of Wine

Wine as a metaphor has a long history. In the 8th century BC, Homer wrote that “flashing-eyed Athena sent them a favourable wind, a strong-blowing West wind that sang over the wine-dark sea. And Telemachus called to his men, and bade them lay hold of the tackling, and they hearkened to his call.” He frequently used wine’s colour to describe a deep, foreboding sea. As with the original Greek, the 19th century English translation, “wine-dark sea,” resonated with readers.

This phrase subsequently provoked substantial modern controversy, with many very smart people trying to decipher what precise colour Homer wanted to evoke. Different authors proposed deep purple, nearly black, red, reddish, and even blue wine. In 1984, John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times about a theory published in Nature. The argument ran that, because the ancient Greeks frequently mixed water into their wine and “the geology of the Peloponnesus, the site of some of the action in the epics, includes large formations of marble and limestone . . . the ground water must have been alkaline, perhaps sufficiently so ‘to change the colour of the wine from red to blue’.”

These were exercises in the historical objectivity of ancient wine. Unfortunately, Homer didn’t leave detailed tasting notes; but whatever the colour was, he relied on common knowledge of its “face” to communicate with his audience. (The phrase in question is “oînops póntos”: oînos “wine” + óps “eye; face”). Referring to objectivity and subjectivity in wine analysis, philosopher Barry Smith recently wrote that “there are facts of the matter about the wine, or the coloured surface — facts that owe nothing to us, or to their being perceived in a certain way.” In history, however, we only have the subjective records of long-passed wine tasters, no matter how objective they thought they were being at the time.

Researching the history of sensorial analysis recently, I was surprised by the importance of colour when it came to describing different wines, particularly in the ancient and Medieval eras. Yet when I consulted Routledge’s very recently published Handbook of Wine and Culture, which includes sections on wine history and historical geography, the index had no entries for colour whatsoever. Culture without colour. Tim Atkin MW’s tasting notes appear to mention colour very infrequently, much like Peter Pharos’ recent journey into tasting Australian wine. Popular wine tasting methods teach us to first evaluate colour and clarity, but that they are less important than aroma, flavour, and mouthfeel. Yet during some historical eras, colour was nearly everything.

Putting oneself in the shoes of long-gone wine tasters is a useful exercise, not least as a way to make us think about current tasting methods, which tend to assess wine in a different way. As the writer Thibaut Boulay noted, “gustatory, olfactory, and somatosensory sensation are not really separable” in ancient wine descriptions.

My youthful memories of wine relate to colour. As a ten year old in the mid 1970s, I remember my father taking a long, translucent brown bottle of Chateau St. Michelle Riesling from the kitchen fridge. Poured into a glass, it displayed an almost colourless limpidity. I learned this was “white” wine. He also had what seemed to me dark wines in almost opaque green bottles, like Erath Pinot Noir and a prized 1973 Château Mouton-Rothschild (with the colourful Picasso label). I learned that these were both “red wines”, despite their obvious differences in hue and opacity.

Studying French in college, I learned that “rosé” wine could also be “gris.” I subsequently lived in China in 1986 and optimistically bought some “wine” in Beijing. This was putao jiu (literally, “grape liquor”), which, when I removed the cap, was horridly oxidised, somewhat opaque, sweet and ochre. It didn’t fit into the categories I had met before. The Chinese mostly drank baijiu (“white liquor”), distilled rice-based moonshine, which was clear and therefore “white.” Fortunately, China like the rest of the world has improved its technical winemaking (and taste in wine), leading to more consistent quality and clarity.

Clarity remains important today, but we we tend to divide wines into broad categories  — red, rosé, and white— that any modestly experienced wine taster will quickly learn to qualify; overall, though, the colour of wine isn’t paramount. The geosensoiral tasting method, a rising trend in France, even uses obscure black glasses.

Contrast this with Homer and other ancients.

Aristotle definitively decided for the rest of Western civilisation that we have five senses, leaving some room for the existence of a sixth (or maybe more). Introducing his theory, he wrote: “That there is no other sense, apart from the five (and by these I mean sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch), we might be convinced by the following considerations.” Since he associated senses with anatomical organs, he settled on five. Both he and Plato gave primacy to sight; taste and smell had inferior status. Colour also took the lead in distinguishing a wine’s quality, sensorial characteristics, and psychosomatic effect.

Comprehending this takes some effort given the vaunted position of aromatic metaphors and sensorial analogies used to differentiate wines today.

Aristotle’s theory proposed a continuum from “black” to “white,” with relative colour indelibly linked to a wine’s qualities. Black wine, which always brings to mind the “black wine of Cahors,” didn’t truly mean “black” wine. There is no white wine, even today, though there’s relatively clear wine, almost devoid of colour. That is, we don’t literally mean a wine reflects a white colour, like milk, and neither did Aristotle when referring to white and black.

Colour indicated a wine’s characteristics, with sweetness, softness, and unctuous on the cooler, whiter end of a continuum, while bitter, hard, salty, and acidic sat on the hotter, blacker end. Overall, all wine was “hot,” with the prized versions tending towards white or clarity. Harsh, astringent, and sharp flavours, among others, also existed in wine, signalled by colour, which transcended the separate categories of sweet, salty, bitter, and sour that predominated later in history.

In the second century AD, Galen stated that straw-coloured wine, the second “warmest” (and thus whiter, softer, sweeter) after yellow wine, affected the head and thought processes more than dark wine — hence cooler, more bitter and astringent — because of its humoral heat. Balance and proportion were important too, but the primary indicator of all this remained colour and relative perceived clarity. Galen wrote about the somatic interactions between a wine of a certain colour and the human body, which eventually became a kind of lifestyle guide to wine, reproduced many times over throughout the Medieval era. The Hippocratic Regimen recommended darker, blacker wine, undiluted, in winter; somewhat whiter, clearer wine in Spring; and very clear, watery wine in summer. This depended on the belief in the humours, faith in which persisted at least to Cervantes’ in the 17th century. Discussing humours, his near contemporary Lope de Vega wrote about “wine that jumps to the eyes.”

Clear wine, because it was closer to “white,” and therefore less “cold,” bitter, and black, continued to be prized after the Roman era. Medieval Christians believed that wine achieved greater perfection than pure water. Water was “cold”; wine was “hot,” in the sense of the humours, which now took on spiritual significance. Maximus of Turin explained that the apostles, admiring the transformation of water into wine, became changed in nature themselves. “Just as water turned into wine is seasoned with flavour, colour and warmth,” he wrote, “so their insipid knowledge acquires flavour, their pallid grace acquires colour, their frigidity is warmed by the heat of immortality.”

Maybe this explains, at least in part, the popularity of claré in Medieval times, often sweetened with honey, but also distinctly limpid, usually clarified. And yet colour and clarity as the supreme indicators of a wine’s qualities appear to have peaked during the Medieval era. English monarchs took to drinking claré and then clairet. Just as putao jiu was one among many kinds of jiu in China, so fermenting grape must produced drinks of different colours, each with different effects and qualities.

In late Medieval Bordeaux, the dark rosé vin clair, or clairet, drawn off the lees and racked, became an international commercial success but also had status among the domestic ecclesiastical orders. However, alongside clairet the clerics also made pimpin, vin blanc, vin vermeille, and vini lymphati (retrovini), the last of which was piquette, or a drink made from watered marc (from Latin lympha, meaning “water”). But the others were pure wines — “pur sans aygua” said one 15th century French text. (Most contemporary consumers would subsequently add water to wine, probably to help reduce the effects of its blackish humoral frigidity). In the archdiocese’s records, wines were distinguished by little else than their colour and relative clarity, although the head of the Benedictine St. André Abbey preferred Graves over Médoc.

“Pimpin” bothered me when I ran across it. What was this now-vanished wine and why the strange name? The Oxford Companion’s explanation that it was dark, press wine didn’t satisfy my curiosity, so I looked to colour. And there it was: the scarlet pimpernel: not the classic of historical fiction but the flower of a powerful medicinal and culinary plant. Louis XIV planted tons of it at Versailles. Pimpin wine had a certain crimson colour, lighter and clearer than vin vermeille, but not as light and clear as clairet, which was 14th century England’s “claret” from the port at Bordeaux. The wine’s association with the flower’s colour, itself integrally linked to the positive medicinal properties of the host plant, perfectly demonstrates contemporary thinking about “sensory analysis” of different wines. Above all else, colour and clarity indicated the wine’s taste, humour, and effect, which translated into selecting the appropriate food and wine pairing, the person to imbibe it, or occasion for drinking.

Other descriptors besides colour mattered, of course. In Medieval Italy, an author named Crivellati described wine’s glorious diversity: “There are different types of wines since some of them are new wines, some old ones, some white, some red, some sweet, some ‘austere,’ some raw, some cooked, some navigated, others not navigated, some odorous, others lacking odours, some from the mountains, others from the valleys, some powerful, others weak, some fine, others gross, some tasty, others insipid…” Still, the importance of colour and the belief in its integral connection to a wine’s character and psychosomatic properties remained very notable, thanks to the lasting influence of Aristotle and Galen, in particular.

By the 17th century, however, colour as a reliable predictor of a wine’s properties was in decline. Subjective human capacity started to take priority; aroma and flavour came to the fore. Cervantes described a wine taster in La Elección de los Alcaldes de Daganzo: “I have all my skill in my tongue, and in my throat; there is no wine-taster in the world who can surpass me; I have 66 tastes stamped on my palate, all of them pertaining to wine.” A 1699 French ecclesiastical work recommended that “the Priest must put a drop in his hand and bring it to his nose with his finger to smell it because he must not be deceived by the colour .” And that, pretty much, is how most professional tasters still think today.

Photo by Denise Chan on Unsplash

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