Palate vs Palette


I’m a graphic designer by day and a wino by n…and a wino. I see the world in CMYK, increasingly in RGB and occasionally as one of my favourite go-to HEX values.

• C25M100Y50B10 (i.e. 25% cyan, 100% magenta, 65% yellow and 20% black) paints a vibrant portrait of Shiraz, possibly Syrah…and, after some contemplation and inevitable self doubt, possibly Zweigelt.

• C5M10Y40B0 lays down a wash of strong affinity as, for me, it speaks of older oak or a white grape variety that’s skin blushes pink.

• C0M30Y40B0 with its translucent delicacy that is both earthy copper metallics and luminous pink sunsets.

I’m not alone - I suspect there are many other wine lovers who assign precise colour values to wines, and who have been equally perplexed by the limitations and vagaries of the SAT and the Grid. For one and a half years I fought for this single point. I’d argue design and Crayola sensibility. It took me failing my second wine tasting exam to eventually let it go. I assimilated and, truly, no longer cared whether my ‘medium garnet’ was WSET’s pale ruby’.

But the first colour swatch still intrigues me.

C25M100Y50B10 has fascinated me from the moment I recognised the heavy lashings of magenta in a wine glass. Many of us know the feeling of watching with eagle eyes as wines are poured pre-exam or pre-blind. When I see the vivid magenta, my soul says ‘Shiraz’. My brain says ‘Wait. Smell and taste it first.’. But my heart knows that it is Shiraz.

Friends, mentors and those more experienced than me have frowned whenever I mention this. It’s a risky move. A risk that I’ve monitored for 2 years. But it’s a risk that has paid off far more often than not. One of my treasured friends (and a competitive blind wine taster) recently acknowledged that I see colours differently because of my job. She is not wrong. In this world of wine that is still relatively new to me, and where I’m constantly unsure and aware of my inexperience, the ability to lean into colour, something that I know so well, is a comfort.

The discomfort aka science

At a recent tasting, two winemakers taught me that the wine’s pH affects its colour. Not sure where I’ve been for the last few years as this information is widely available. Deeply coloured wines with a blue tint suggest higher pH and tannins, and lower acidity (Malbec). Medium pH results in deeper coloured, purple hued wines. Intensely red wines indicate lower pH with higher acidity (Sangiovese). Some red grapes have more anthocyanins in their skins than others e.g. Syrah, have 4 times the level of anthocyanins compared to others. Younger wines show more purple than older wines.

I don’t science, but I’ll go out on a limb to exclude pH as far as the specific shade is concerned. It must lie in the skins and the anthocyanins. Age is certainly a factor as deducing wines by their magenta intensity doesn’t work with much older wines.

Again, I don’t science. And for this reason, I think it’s okay to hand over this part of wine to the arts.

Watercolour palette

Looking for the pinkish golden hues that suggest Gewurztraminer or Viognier…or Pinot Noir in a sparkling wine. The way that Cabernet Franc reads redder than Cabernet Sauvignon. The strange in-betweenness of Pinotage where, much like its red and black fruit profile, the colour often shifts between Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson and Purple Madder (those who dabble with the paints will know what I’m talking about). Relating tangible real-world colours to something that’s connotated with such broad strokes by the SAT has its benefits. However, the negative is that 2161 Pantone colours is beyond the realms of practicality…especially under a time crunch. So Lemon, Gold, Amber…Purple, Ruby, Garnet, Tawny…and Pink, Salmon (yay, it’s back) and Orange will have to do.

Fun fact about me: I don’t wear colour…you’ll usually find me wearing black. It’s because colour is overly stimulating and I find myself distracted by erm myself. Measuring the hues and contrasts, considering the effects of the illuminating sun and covert shade, wishing I could toggle the values to the perfect complementary dirty mustard that works with the darker skin tone of my hands…it's far too much stimulation for my magpie brain. Colour is an inherent part of my life. It tickles me to no end that wine has made my gingerbread fingers with their dark cocoa creases hesitate any time I type the word ‘palate’ and ‘palette’. #654321 digits that crease into #332211 at the knuckles.

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