Teaching Sense of Place – Associating Wine with Colors

Recently I found myself pushing Riesling and various offerings from the Rhone on the mean streets of Staten Island.  Well, not really that mean, but certainly crowded with potholes and traffic jams.  As I visited my friends Deb and Alex at Mission Fine Wines, Deb mentioned that she was beginning an introductory course on wine tasting in January.  She mentioned that she often compares the components of wine to music.  The better the wine, the more the components – acid, sugar, oak, fruit, tannin and earth – harmonize together to produce a balanced and approachable wine.  I offered, and Deb agreed, that a great piece or song is produced in a similar manner.  Whether it’s Mozart, Ella Fitzgerald, Black Flag or Blind Melon, their greatest works, though they are quite distinctive from each other, are balanced, expressive and a delight for the ears.  We concluded that great wines, no matter the price point, offer similar satisfaction for the drinker.

As we tasted through a few wines, I explained to Deb that I often use colors in helping novice wine drinkers understand flavor profiles.  Perhaps the biggest obstacle in teaching newbies about getting their heads around what’s in the glass is building their vocabulary and frame of reference.  For those who often drink Pinot Noir, cherry is a descriptor that pops into their heads because of their tasting experience.  And advanced tasters can identify which region their Pinot Noir comes from by breaking down cherry into sour cherry, bing cherry, red cherry, fresh, dried, stewed, under- ripe and so on and so forth.  How can we get the novice drink to that point?  Perhaps we can teach wine drinkers to differentiate among a group of wines made with the same grape (or similar blends) by associating their places of origins with colors.  This first technique of associating wine with place was introduced to me by my original wine mentor, Francis Schott, proprietor and wine director at Stage Left Restaurant in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Most Pinot Noir (excluding sparkling, sweet or white versions) should have some sort a cherry of some sort in their flavor profile.  Now, let’s think of cherries in terms of the color red – burgundy red more specifically.  We can choose any color for our purposes – blue, yellow, green or even pink.  However, for our purposes today, we will use red  For instance, a bright, fresh and young California Pinot – from the Russian River say, could be associated with purplish maroon.  An Oregon Pinot Noir, with a little less forward fruit, more earth and brighter acidity can be seen as more maroon than purple.  And then a Burgundy of the same age would fall more solidly into the maroon camp.

Is Your Pinot Violet Red or Red Violet?

And in describing the age and winemaking style of these wines, we can apply textural descriptors.  For instance, the wine drinker can associate younger, fresher styles of the above wines in a semi-gloss kind of way.  If Old World wines are made in an overly traditional manner, the maroon color you associate wines from the Cote d’Or in Burgundy would be matted.  As for the super modern and flashy styles out there, associate them with a higher gloss or shinier purple.  And let us not forget wines that have some bottle age – simply remember them with the same color profile as their younger counterparts, but with more faded texture – depending on their age.

Perhaps this is an incredibly complicated way of understanding wine, but I think it makes sense.  As we attempt to instill confidence in wine drinkers by developing their frame of reference and vocabulary, we need to be creative in finding ways to get descriptors to stick.  Remembering how certain wines identify with their region can be a daunting exercise, but once the light goes off in a wine drinker’s head, it normally stays on.  And the more a wine drinker gains confidence in purchasing wines in wine shops and restaurants the greater the chance that they will begin to drink – and understand – wines that are less ordinary while also capturing a sense of place.