I’m so happy that Wine Basics season has rolled around again – today was the first class of the year! Wine Basics is kind of a crash course in tasting techniques that we offer on Saturdays every summer and I miss it during the winter.
I always feel a little rusty and nervous for the first class of the season – afraid I’ll forget what I’m doing. Of course, once we all got to know each other my inner ham emerged and we ended up laughing a lot and had a great time – hopefully somebody learned something! Anyway, as we were talking about what the color and clarity can tell you about the wine, someone asked about the “legs”. Now, I knew I was on home turf! I’ll bet that question is asked at nine out of 10 sessions every year, so coming up with a reply was second nature.
There’s a persistent myth that the little driplets that come down the sides of the glass are a quality indicator. If only it was that simple! Wouldn’t that be great? But, of course it doesn’t work that way.
The legs, candles, tears or whatever you like to call them are are mainly the result of a healthy alcohol. There are all kinds of physics involved and for those of you who want the truly geeky description, check out this explanation of the Gibbs-Marangoni effect. For the rest of us who prefer it in English, and perhaps over-simplified, the major players in wine are water and alcohol and this mixed-media liquid tends to climb the glass a little. A plain glass of water or a glass of pure alcohol won’t form legs, but wine does because the alcohol evaporates faster than the water in the glass and as it does, gravity pulls the remaining water down the sides in little streams. I’ll refer you back to Gibbs-Marangoni for the spiel on light refraction and why you can see the legs…
And is high alcohol a good thing? As usual, the answer is “it depends”. For a full bodied wine, especially red, if there isn’t enough alcohol the wine may feel light and unsatisfying on the palate. The alcohol definitely contributes to the body of the wine. Winemakers are always seeking that thing called “balance”. They don’t want anything to stick out of the wine – they want a harmonious whole – and if the alcohol is too high you’ll smell it and it will feel hot on your palate. That doesn’t quite fit the bill. The alcohol needs to be balanced with all the other components.
So, who started this myth? Dunno, but I suspect it goes back to the old country. While here in sunny California we worry about warm weather producing high sugars and therefore alcohols, the relatively cool climate in some European regions won’t always yield enough sugar to produce 12% alcohol and above. Many of the regions have established minimum alcohol levels, among other requirements, in order to gain appellation status. So, in the eyes of producers and consumers of days past, perhaps the good legs were in fact a sign of riper grapes and better quality. But – with chaptalization (adding sugar) and more recently a series of warm vintages (climate change?), if that was the reason, it hasn’t applied for a long time now.
So, next time one of your friends remarks on how the wine must be a really good one because it has great legs you have two choices: you can either try to gently quell the myth, or you can just smile indulgently, since this is one rumor that forever seems to have legs!!!