“Ah,” that snobby wine guy says at a casual tasting, viciously swirling the wine in his glass. “Look at this wine’s legs. They are just phenomenal. Truly a high-quality wine.” Legs, tears, or whatever you call them are a favorite term of a certain type of self-proclaimed oenophile. (Namely, one who aims to sound very fancy and knowledgeable.)
Although they are often referred to as indicators of quality, wine legs actually tell the drinker very little about what the wine will actually taste like. Take that, wine snobs!
Wine legs, or tears, are those little droplets that fall down the sides of the wine glass after the wine is sipped or swirled. Their causes are somewhat complicated, and relate to the chemical structure of wine and its alcohol. The ethanol in wine evaporates along the tiny rim of wine along the sides of a glass. Because it has a smaller surface tension than water, the liquid runs down the sides of the glass into the bowl due to a phenomenon called the Marangoni effect.
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Thus, the higher level of alcohol in a wine, the slower and thicker its tears will be. Unfortunately, other components affect wine tears, so they aren’t a straightforward indicator of quality. Sugar, for example, impacts the speed of a wine’s tears, so sweeter wines tend to have slower-falling droplets. If a wine has thick, slow-falling tears or legs, the wine likely has higher alcohol content (which typically correlates to fuller body), more sugar, or both.
Perhaps in the big, booming ’80s, when lots of alcohol and powerful structure all but guaranteed a 100-point score from Robert Parker, thick tears were seen as a sign of a high-quality wine. Today, however, they mean very little. When looking at a glass of wine, pay more attention to its color and depth than its legs. Then sniff, sip, and enjoy.