A common and very valid question often asked at wine tastings is, “What do legs in a wine mean?” In the United States wine lovers commonly use the term “legs” to signify the rivulets of wine that stream down the side of your glass after you swirl your wine, or that appear when you hold the glass at an angle and then turn it upright. Other cultures use different terminology. In Spain and England, they are known as tears; in Germany they are called cathedral windows. Whatever the name, the common wine myth that legs somehow reveal the quality of a wine is misleading.
Two wine elements are primary when it comes to legs in a wine, whether that be red or white, and the first is alcohol. Leg width depends on a complex array of factors related to the amount of alcohol, its rate of evaporation, ambient temperature and humidity, and the surface tension between wine and glass. Generally, then, this means that a higher alcohol wine will show thicker, slower legs. This phenomenon can make for a fun wine party game! Guests examine a wine’s legs and try to guess the alcohol level.
The second major element when it comes to legs in a wine is sugar. Of course, dry wines have little to none of this, so it’s not always a factor. But when present, sugar will indeed cause slower, more viscous legs. Obviously, if you put the two elements together, as in Port, the legs can be substantial! All that alcohol and residual sugar will mesmerize you with sexy legs that slowly glide down the glass like an actress sashaying across the red carpet. Bottom line: legs in a wine may offer a lot of visual appeal, but if you want to determine a wine’s quality you’ll have to taste it. Oh darn.