Wine Legs

Food & Drink - March 31st, 2010

by J.K. Whelehan

Did you know that wine has legs? Have you ever thought the person who was swirling his glass was simply being ostentatious? Legs, also commonly referred too as tears, is one of the descriptive terms used to describe the streaks of clear liquid that form on the side of the glass after swirling the wine. A result of the combination of surface tension, physics and alcohol content, it is the evaporation process that is more important then the visual apparition. How so? Well, when one reflects that there are only five basic tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami), then one realizes the importance of facilitating aroma by swirling to detect your fruit and oak.

Which brings us to the glass responsible for translating the wine to our senses. Different wines merit different sizes and shapes depending on the variety, region and winemaking technique. As a rule of thumb, wines which have two flavor contributors (i.e. fermented juice and yeast) warrant the smallest glass. Add a third flavor contributor (oak) and you need a bigger glass. Finally, throw in skin contact (primarily used for red wines to extract the red color) and you will need a still larger format. So if trying to decode the glasses on a table, the smallest glass on the left should be for the white. In general wines are tasted left to right, whites are served before reds, light wines before full, and dry before sweet.

Shape is also important, as it dictates the way the wine flows out of the glass. Many glasses are designed to deliver the wine to specific zones in the mouth which are more or less sensitive to the basic tastes, thereby making the wine more harmonious. If, for example, a variety is high in acidity, choose a Riesling glass. By channeling the wine toward the tip of the tongue, you can enhance the fruit and minimize the acid. For more details it is worth checking the Riedel website (

There is a French proverb which goes, “He who buys good wine will taste and drink good wine.” But perhaps he who also buys good glasses will taste better wine!

J.K. Whelehan is a Tokyo-based wine expert and writer, as well as co-author of the best-selling book Japanese Dishes for Wine Lovers, published by Kodansha and available from Amazon.

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Photo courtesy of J.K. Whelehan