Do Wine "Legs" Mean Anything?
Photo courtesy Jenny Downing/Flickr
Q: I was gifted an expensive bottle of Bordeaux from the 2003 vintage. Online research suggests it can be cellared for something like 20 years, but I do not have a wine cellar. Also, I am 75 years old. While I am hale and hearty now, waiting 20 years does not make much sense to me. Should I sell it, drink it, or re-gift it?
A: Your query is one of the primary preoccupations of wine collectors everywhere: Drink up, lay down, or sell. I say drink it up.
In general, time has a way of sneaking up on wine collectors. In some instances, their enthusiasm, tastes, or passions have shifted or faded, or their projections on how well a wine would mature do not pan out, or in some sadder cases, their health no longer supports the diet they previously envisioned for their anecdotage. Wine cellars should be filled slowly, curated carefully, and dipped into frequently. The old notion of wine cellars filled to provide for generations to come is a bit of aristocratic, and rather anachronistic, frankly.
I don’t know the specific wine you were given, but from what you report it is clearly a “fine wine,” and whoever gave it to you presumably intends for the wine to bring you some pleasure. Personally, I’d get more pleasure from consumption than from trying to sell it—also, selling alcohol legally when not already licensed to do so is not as straightforward as you may think. I can imagine circumstances under which I’d sooner pass the pleasure of drinking it along to another by re-gifting it, but all things being equal, such circumstances are few and far between. I’d be far more likely to open it with such friends so that we could enjoy the wine together.
Drink up and enjoy!
Q: What are people talking about when they reference a wine’s “legs” or “tears” after swirling the wine in the glass?
A: The so-called “legs” or “tears” are the translucent streaks that cling to the sides of a clean glass of wine. They sometimes appear to climb up the glass a few millimeters, eventually to form patches of film from the thin layer that become more like viscous droplets as it descends to the surface of the wine in the glass. There are lots of folks who seem to believe—presumably because somebody misinformed them—that these “legs” are the mark of a wine’s quality, or otherwise hold some treasure trove of information about a wine. This is, perhaps, a romantic notion, but it is pure and utter nonsense. This phenomenon may, perhaps, suggest something vague about the wine’s alcoholic strength, but really it signifies very little about the wine itself, and nothing about its quality.
The legs or tears effect is the simply the interaction of a few simple physical relationships regarding surface tensions—known as interfacial tensions—and evaporation.
Wine is largely a solution of alcohol and water, after all, and while both alcohol and water are subject to evaporation upon exposure to air, typically the alcohol will evaporate at a slightly faster rate. This evaporation changes the composition of the solution, thereby increasing the tensions between the wine’s interfacial tensions between the air/liquid interaction in the glass and the solid/liquid interaction with the glass. It is this increase in surface tensions, especially as between the solid and liquid, that is the cause of the legs or tears—the streaks of wine ascend the side of the glass, while the legs or tears descend. Until, eventually, the weight of the forming droplet overcomes the interfacial tension holding it to the side of the glass, and it runs down the wall of the glass as a “leg” or “tear.”
I suspect chatter about a wine’s “tears” and “legs” became a popular pastime among wine connoisseurs simply because it is something to look at and comment upon.
Q: What’s good this week?
A: Thinking about wine that can cellar comfortably for the long haul, but can give pleasure now has prompted me to crack open this high-end beauty:
Château Cantenac Brown, Margaux, France, kosher edition, 2015 ($150): This is simply fabulous—an elegant, nuanced nose that takes time to reveal its treasures of fine blackberry, cranberry, strawberry, sweet plum, bramble, mushroom, cedar, tobacco, and new leather aromas, pushing through to a palate of considerable depth, power, and complexity; offering additional notes of ripe dark cherry, raspberry, dark plum, mocha, espresso, violet, lavender, and licorice. Though still in its infancy now, the purity, sophistication, and overall balance make this, already, an absolute pleasure to drink—though give it two to three hours of decanting if you really can’t wait five years, or so. I estimate it will enter its earliest optimal drinking window around 2023, and then should continue to age gracefully until around 2040, perhaps even longer. Whether I wait that long for the bottles in my cellar is anybody’s guess.