Good Legs Mean Good Wine?


Question from Sheila: We were out to dinner with some friends and my girlfriend said the wine had good legs. I didn’t want to look stupid so I didn’t ask her what she meant. Is that good?

Reply: Thanks for writing, Sheila. This is a very common question and a source of unneccesary confusion about wine!

The term, “legs” (the British call them tears or candles) refers to the driplets of wine you see coming down inside the glass of wine after the wine has been swirled or has coated the glass.

One of the most persistent wine myths is that “good legs” are a sign of good quality. No matter what anyone says, the legs don’t tell you a thing about quality. Wine with a generous amount of alcohol, at least 11.5 or 12%, and that’s wine at every price point, has good legs.

TRIVIA! If you were taking the Master Sommelier exam, good legs might tell you that the wine came from a relatively warm climate or warm vintage. Warm weather = high sugar = hefty alcohol.

This is an over-simplification of the physics behind it, but It has to do with the two biggest components in a glass of wine: water and alcohol. When the wine coats the glass, the alcohol evaporates faster than the water. Gravity pulls the water down the sides, making for “good legs.” If you really want the physics check out the scoop on the Marangoni effect.  

Is high alcohol a good thing? As usual when it comes to wine, it depends. Alcohol gives wine a good deal of its body, so a Cabernet that’s only 9 or 10% alcohol might be disappointing by way of being thin or unsatisfying. Good Cabernet-based wines are usually at least 11% and often much higher in alcohol.

But, if its a delicate style, like a fruity, floral Moscato or Riesling, 14% would burn through the fruity aromas so you’d smell the alcohol and it would likely feel hot on your palate. The added weight of the alcohol would feel out of kilter on your palate. This is why winemakers love that term “balance” so much. The major components in the wine need to play nicely with others. So, the alcohol should be there, but it shouldn’t draw attention to itself.

MORE TRIVIA! In the European wine regions, which are mainly cool-climate situations, many of the local appellation laws require a minimum level of alcohol in order to carry the name of the region on the label. If your wine doesn’t make it, it’s de-classified.

So, the legs send  a message about the alcohol and what to expect regarding the weight of the wine. But, other than that, they don’t tell you much. The best way to decide if it’s a good wine is to smell and taste it. Cheers! 

Photo: from Flickr by Agnieszka Bernacka,  RedKoala1 

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