Beyond Red and White – Color in Wine

Beyond Red and White – Color in Wine

Every Friday without fail, the blind tasting begins the same way. “All together now, Wine Number One is a…”

Our leader and Master Sommelier is briefly rewarded with, without exception, our only unanimous reply of the day.

“A white wine!” we cry. Or else: “A red wine!”

After that, nothing is agreed upon. Yes, it’s a white wine, but is it medium yellow or pale straw? Could it have gold or even amber reflections? Is it “day bright” or is it “star bright”?

You may laugh, but these terms are part of a code that wine professionals depend on to communicate: the producers, the distributors and sommeliers who represent them, the critics, and ultimately, the people who buy and drink the wines. Some of the terms are subjective; others are not, and it pays to know the difference. If I pour a wine that I’m excited for a beverage director to taste, and I describe its hue as garnet when it’s clearly on the opposite side of ruby, I’ll instantly lose their confidence and quite possibly their business.

The spectrum of hues used to describe most red wines runs from purple to ruby to garnet to brick. Even then, it’s not simple. The Court of Master Sommeliers avoids the latter term, noting (not inaccurately) that bricks come in a variety of colors, but in many settings the word serves its purpose better than any other. After all, who doesn’t know what color a brick is?

As always, we choose our words carefully, adapting to the audience and the context, to achieve the desired result.

Seven colors of wine described in French.
A purple-hued wine is here described as ‘violet’, not ‘pourpre’, while ‘grenat’ is purpler than our garnet…

The plot (though hopefully not the wine) thickens even further when we introduce another language. In French, for example, each of these four color descriptors has an equivalent, but none of them are direct and many of them are misleading. ‘Pourpre’ is French for purple, but for a wine to be called purple in English, it would have to be purpler than ‘pourpre’: so purple that the French would call it ‘violet’ instead. And that’s without getting into how the term ‘violet’ is used in English

Rendering these terms faithfully in English, in a way that will gain the confidence of even the most avid wine connoisseur, calls for more than just knowing the French word for purple: it requires a deep understanding of the wine world, a dedication to the craft of translation, and enough passion for both to be willing to spend a lot of time on research!

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