The Myths and Facts About Wine Legs
There’s a good chance that the following scenario is a familiar one: You and your group order wine at a restaurant, someone raises their glass to the light, squints at cascading droplets, and makes a remark about the wine legs. As the story goes, these unassuming “wine tears” tell us a bounty of information, usually regarding the quality of the wine.
But while many wine lovers swear that wine legs are a significant feature of wine, we’re here to burst that bubble. There are certain wine myths that refuse to die, and wine legs is one of them. In this article, we’re putting those rumors to rest once and for all and telling you the truth about wine legs.
What Are Wine Legs?
The legs of wine are tear-shaped drops and streaks that appear on the sides of a glass when you swirl the wine around or after you’ve taken a sip.
Although wine legs don’t offer any legitimate information about the quality of a wine, they can be intriguing to watch. If you’re curious to see this spectacle in front of your eyes, take a glass of wine and gently tip it at an angle so it coats the side of the glass. Then turn it back to the upright position and watch as long droplets form — these are what we are talking about when referring to wine legs.
While “wine legs” is the most commonly used term, this phenomenon goes by many names. For instance, some people refer to these droplets as church windows because of the long arch-like patterns they create on the sides of a glass. Others think of them as the crying tears of wine, and it's easy to see why with their tear-like shape.
Why Do Wine Legs Form?
Sorry to disappoint, but wine legs are not tiny little secrets waiting to be told. While the tannin level, sweetness, region, or age can tell you plenty about your favorite wine’s life as a grape or its flavor profile, wine legs are simply drops of liquid.
Wine legs form on the inside of a wine glass and are caused by fluid surface tension. This is due to the slow evaporation of alcohol. In physics, the tears of wine can be explained through the Marangoni effect or Gibbs-Marangoni effect.
This states that liquids with different surface tensions will always move away from each other. Because wine is made up of alcohol and water (among other things), these two contrasting liquids move away from each other when left in your wine glass.
When the wine coats the inside of the glass, the thin film of liquid is pulled down by gravity. However, as alcohol has a higher evaporation point than water, the Marangoni effect causes the water to push upwards away from the more alcoholic wine below. The resulting instability is wine legs.
It’s also worth noting that heat can affect such chemical processes, so the temperature of the room where you’re drinking can also affect the wine legs you see.
Myth: Wine Legs Indicate Quality
For many years, it was widely believed that the more legs a wine had, the better it would be in quality. It’s not clear where this myth got started, but it’s a story that’s been hanging around for a long time.
While you can’t determine a wine’s quality by tipping your glass and counting the tears, there are plenty of other ways to help assess the quality of your wine before taking your first sip.
Pay Attention to Region
For starters, look at the wine label and take note of the region it comes from. There are many high-quality wine regions every wine enthusiast should know, including the Loire Valley in France, Mendoza in Argentina, Napa Valley in California, and the Yarra Valley in Australia, among others. Of course, just because a bottle of wine comes from Napa doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be stellar.
Know the Difference Between Small Batch vs. Mass Production
Educate yourself about winemaking. For example, Usual Wines favors minimal-intervention, sustainable winemaking techniques with grapes grown in small batches and no added chemicals. By contrast, conventional winemakers tend to use multiple additives, sweeteners, and other manipulations to produce large quantities as cheaply as possible. Opt for smaller, more traditional winemakers when possible, including those that make organic wine — this way you’ll have an idea of quality before you even open the bottle.
Follow Your Nose
Another method to figure out a wine’s quality is giving your glass a swirl before sipping — and no, it’s not to read the wine legs. Swirling the wine will release the aroma and tell you more about the wine. You can learn a bit about the age, region, and body of a wine simply by breathing it in and letting your nose detect the various nuances and notes.
Getting in the habit of smelling the wine aroma is also an easy way to avoid drinking a corked bottle. For anyone who’s had the unfortunate experience of tasting corked wine, you know it’s quite unpleasant. As such, beware of odors that evoke damp cardboard or even wet dog.
Don’t Lose Sight of Color
Finally, pay close attention to the color of the wine. When you’re tasting red wine, for instance, a darker and more burgundy hue is an indicator of older wine. Meanwhile, a lighter purple color suggests the bottle is younger. For white wine, a golden hue indicates age, while lighter tones usually mean it’s a more recent vintage.
Fact: Wine Legs Indicate Alcohol Content
While the tears of wine don’t tell us anything about its taste or quality, there is one thing it does illuminate, and that’s alcohol content.
Because wine legs are caused by the evaporation of alcohol affecting the surface area of the liquid, wines with higher alcohol content will have more legs. Still, this is hardly a foolproof way to determine levels of alcohol, so use this method as a general guideline, not a carved-in-stone rule. Remember, the temperature of a room can also give wine more legs, so always check the alcohol level on the wine label to be sure.
Don’t Give Any Legs to Wine Myths
Although the myth of wine legs continues, science shows that these tear-shaped streaks do not indicate quality, and they certainly don’t require your attention when choosing wine.
Instead, focus on reading the bottle to discover where and how your wine was made. Look for some of the wine regions mentioned above, such as Napa Valley, Mendoza, and the Loire Valley.
Do your research about the winemaker. Have a look at their website to discover what techniques they use to produce their wine and whether or not they use additives, sweeteners, and other wine-altering methods.
When looking for signs of quality, your best bet is to seek out wines that are produced using small-batch, organic, and sustainable farming practices.
If you fancy learning more about what makes the best wines and other related topics, don’t miss our wine blog, which is your new go-to spot for learning about the wonderful world of wine.