Samui Wining & Dining
Looking Good

Wine’s not all about taste – how it’s presented in a bottle or glass can make all the difference.

27All good cooks know that we eat with our eyes as well as our mouths. It’s a consideration of importance in all cultures. The Japanese culinary masters regard presentation as paramount and turn simple dishes of fish and rice into minor art forms. In Western culture, the modern ‘foodie’ also insists that food looks good on the plate. And some chefs have taken this to the extreme (you know who you are); foams and smears and bizarre items used for plates and bowls, grace the tables of many a trendy eatery.

    Wine, considered properly, also contains intense visual pleasures. Subconsciously, we digest it before we even pour it into a glass, let alone our stomachs. That is to say, we view it on the shelf or in a wine display cabinet at a restaurant. Like it or not, our initial perception of a wine, is governed by how the bottle presents itself. The enticement of a well-designed label and, most importantly, how such a stuck-on advertisement promotes the wine’s candidature for that dinner party at which, as host or hostess, we are anxious to impress, cannot be ignored. Most crucial here, for many ignorant wine snobs, is the insistence of the words on the label. Many a drinker is guided, persuaded, and, in the final analysis, bludgeoned into believing the sensory excellence of the wine within the bottle, merely because the label says ‘Chateau This’ or ‘Domaine That’. In 2012, this is foolish and anachronistic prejudice.

    However, there’s no denying that the image summoned up by the words on the label and the shape of the bottle can be extremely powerful, too. I’m sure that the reason why so many dry-white-wine drinkers cannot abide the idea of German wine is the association with those (mostly dreadful) sweet offerings lurking in tall dark Germanic bottles a couple of decades ago. And this is obviously why most of the newfangled dry German white wines now come in clear, or light green, Bordeaux-shaped bottles – the wine enthusiast’s eyes perceive these style bottles as signaling dryness.

     Of all the sensory systems that detect the nuances of wine, vision is the most neglected. Yet we cannot help but look at wine before we do anything else with it. And, in fact, the eye performs its most important sensory role once the wine has been poured into the glass. We drink with the eyes before we sip with the lips. This is one reason why a generously bowled wine glass helps us appreciate the wine more. By tipping the glass horizontally we can, unless the glass is too full, form a half-moon reservoir that brings us great pleasure in contemplation. It can be an immediate sensory experience, certainly for the experienced wine lover. A hypnotic, compellingly vibrant colour in a wine glass, like a lush golden hue or a meaty scarlet, is highly arousing to the brain of a wine connoisseur. It signals to the taste-buds that intense gratification is imminent. Saliva secretion glands swell with anticipation.


A young wine will be nearly
transparent at its water’s
edge, whilst an older red
wine will be purple here.


      The colour of the wine, as it moves within a glass held to the light, is full of meaning. The white wine spectrum runs from the pale, almost watery hue of a recently released Sauvignon or Chenin Blanc from South Africa to the intense golden glow of an 18-month-old heavily-oaked Californian Chardonnay, or the fierce yellow of ten-year-old classic French Sauternes. Red wine is no less engaging to the eye (although it does reserve its greatest complexities for the taste-buds), but its spectrum is denser, hence nuances have to be carefully noticed.

      To my eye, the most wishy-washy of all the red wines is Beaujolais, and don’t get me started on the insipid tones of Beaujolais Nouveau! Certain Northern Italian red wines can often be pale, whereas others, like Primitivo, can be a luxurious deep dark and mysterious maroon lagoon. A full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon can be almost purple in colour, and a good old brawny Aussie Shiraz should resemble congealed blood! Of course, describing colour is not an exact science. One person’s perception is not necessarily the same as someone else’s. What you term ruby, someone else might call scarlet. And with wine, the term ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, is probably most relevant, and on many levels too.

      The age of a wine can be detected by vision. A young wine will be nearly transparent at its water’s edge, whilst an older red wine will be purple here. And an older white wine can show pale orange around its edges. We can also guess the approximate alcohol level of a wine by looking at it. Whilst swilling it around in a generously sized glass we not only release the wine’s aroma, but we also cause it to be drawn up the sides of the glass. As the liquid descends, it shows itself first to be clear (if not, there is something wrong) and then it trickles down the sides of the glass in thin lines. The more heavily alcoholic wines will create thicker trickles, and more of them. The French like to call this phenomenon ‘weeping’ (the trickles are tears). In Germany, less poetically, though no less fancifully, it’s described as ‘cathedral windows’, because of the arch-like shapes formed by the returning wine. Not a term I particularly like, as most cathedral windows I’ve ever seen have rarely been clear (or clean for that matter). The less pretentious Aussies, Yanks and Brits simply prefer to refer to this phenomenon as the wine’s ‘legs’.

      Having just read all this, if, by chance, you are going out for a romantic candle-lit dinner tonight, with a loved one, I’m afraid most of this visual wine information will be rendered useless in the dim lighting. But then again, maybe it’s more appropriate that you pay this kind of close attention to your dinner partner, instead of the wine. And hopefully, he or she will be as delightful, enchanting, exotic and attractive as a dynamic New Zealand Pinot Noir!




Peter James


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