What Do Wine Legs Mean?

Many common terms are thrown around among wine enthusiasts — body, oaky, tannins, etc.  You’ve likely heard some of these terms, but what about wine legs?  Do wine legs provide clues concerning the quality of wines? If so, what do you look for? If not, what do these mysterious legs tell you about the wine you’re sipping?  This guide covers everything you need to know about wine legs: what they are, how to identify them, and why they matter. Let’s get started. 

Related: Wine Terms New Wine Drinkers Should Know

What Are Wine Legs?

The next time you’re drinking a glass of wine (which may very well be right now), look at the inside of your wineglass. Do you notice droplets? Those droplets are wine legs and are sometimes called “tears of wine.”

Scientifically, this phenomenon is associated with the Marangoni effect, first described in the 1860s. An Italian physicist, Carlo Giuseppe Matteo Marangoni, began investigating the spreading of oil drops on a water surface. However, this effect also applies to wine due to fluid surface tension caused by the evaporation of alcohol. Even NASA discussed this fluid phenomenon

What Do Wine Legs Indicate?

So, once wine legs form, what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean the wine is high quality? Low quality? Or something else entirely?

Despite what you may have heard, wine legs have nothing to do with a wine’s quality. 

However, these “tears” can tell you more about a wine’s potential alcohol and sweetness level. For example, high alcohol wines tend to collect more high-density droplets on the sides of your wineglass than lower alcohol wines. Sweeter wines are more viscous, so wine legs flow more slowly down the side of a glass. 

So, the tears on your wineglass primarily indicate a wine’s alcohol content and surface tension — not perceived quality. 

Two of the most significant external variables influencing these tears are temperature and humidity, which means a room’s environment will affect the rate at which wine legs form. These variables are also why you can enjoy the same type of wine, yet the legs seem different depending on the season. 

What Causes Wine Legs & How to Assess Them

Before you swirl your glass, which “opens” wine up to enhance the smell and taste, tilt it on an angle to one side. Next, level your glass to observe how your wine flows and the density of the wine legs that form. 

If many wine legs form, the wine likely has a higher alcohol content. 

Once you swirl your glass, you’ll create a film of wine on the inside surface. Once the alcohol evaporates, creating wine aromas, the remaining combination of water and wine collects on the sides, creating droplets. Thanks to gravity, these droplets begin to fall back into the glass. 

The evaporation process is critical here. If you turn a closed wine bottle upside down and then right side up, you’ll notice that wine legs don’t form. When the bottle is closed, no evaporation occurs. 

Alcohol evaporates faster than water — it also has lower surface tension. The water’s concentration and surface tension increase in your glass, and then gravity does the rest, causing a streak to form. Although the process can seem complicated when using scientific language, wine legs form because of two opposing forces — evaporating molecules of alcohol and heavier molecules that develop following the combination of water, sugar, and other wine components. 

Will Wine Legs Form in Glasses of White and Red Wine?

The short answer is yes. Legs will form in a glass of red or white. 

The long answer is slightly more complex, as several variables play a role. One of those variables is the molecules we discussed above. A wine that contains a larger number of heavier molecules, such as sugar and tannins, will yield more distinct wine legs. The relationship between molecules and wine legs explains why tears are most noticeable in heavy reds and sweet wines.

Remember, whether wine legs form in a glass of white or red wine, these tears do not correlate with quality. These droplets can indicate a wine’s structural characteristics but not the quality. The only way to assess how good a wine is is to smell and taste it, focusing on its acidity, alcohol level, and aroma. When these characteristics are in balance, you know you have good wine in your glass.

So, How Do You Determine a Wine’s Quality?

The only way to dive deeper into the quality of wine is to open the bottle. Although you can gain plenty of insight from a label, including the wine’s region, only a glass, your nose, and taste buds can tell the whole story. 

Some would argue that “good” wine is the wine they enjoy, and to a certain extent, that’s true — personal preference matters when enjoying a glass of wine. However, despite these preferences, certain elements determine quality. 

  • The wine’s smell is the first test. Wine can yield a wide array of aromas. Aromas should be inviting, whether you’re hit with ripe stone fruits or floral notes. If a wine smells bad, it’s likely corked. 
  • Next, a wine should be balanced concerning its components, such as its alcohol, activity, and tannin levels. If one of these components completely takes over each sip, the wine isn’t balanced. 
  • Depth is also key, as quality wines offer layers of flavor. For example, this 2018 Pinot Noir offers the palate flavors of red raspberry, cherry, pomegranate, cranberry, and spicy clove. 
  • A wine’s finish is also crucial — meaning how long the flavor lingers on your palate. You likely have a good wine if you can still taste appealing characteristics two, three, or even four seconds after swallowing. When drinking the highest quality wines, you will be able to still taste characteristics after 10 seconds or more of swallowing. This 2017 Viognier finishes clean and long, whereas this 2019 Chardonnay has a soft and fresh finish that lingers. Both are of exquisite quality. 

Ready to see how wine legs differ from one wine to the next while enjoying one quality glass after the other? Try Sweet Oaks wine today!

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