Wine Tears – What Are They, How Are They Formed, And What do They Mean?

You pour a glass of Italian wine and take a moment to contemplate it.

You swirl the wine for a moment, watching the colours inside dance around one another as you hold the wine up to the light. Bringing the wine to your nose, you take a deep breath as you inhale all of the gorgeous notes in the bouquet.

Finally, you’re ready for the first sip.

But instead of bringing the glass straight to your mouth, you take one more look at it.

That’s when you see them.

Streaked down the sides of the glass are what look for all the world like tears.

What are these tears? How did they get there? And what do they tell you about the wine that you’re about to drink?

Those are the questions that we aim to answer in this article as we dig deeper into what Italian wine tears really mean.

What Are Wine Tears

Also referred to as “arches” or “legs”, wine tears are exactly what they sound like. They’re little droplets of what looks like water that gets left on the side of your wine glass. The tears tend to form when you swirl the glass, as this motion leads to more of the wine coming into contact with the glass. However, they’ll also likely start forming after you’ve taken a few sips.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that we’re sure you’ve noticed at several points, even if you’ve never given it much thought.

But now that we’ve pointed it out, you might start thinking about how those tears are formed. After all, everything in the world of Italian wine means something. Surely there’s a reason why those tears are there. They must tell you something about the wine.

We’ll get to that.

First, let’s answer the question of how they’re formed.

What Cause Wine Tears to Form?

It’s basic physics, as boring an answer as that may be to some.

It starts with the rotation, which causes a thin layer of liquid to get deposited on the walls of the glass. Think of this as a near-invisible layer of wine. 

That thin layer contains alcohol.

This alcohol evaporates at a faster rate than everything else in the liquid, which leads to it having a surface tension that is greater than that of the rest of the layer. This leads to the wine layer rising a little further inside the glass, leaving the tears of alcohol behind.

But that isn’t the full story because it only explains how we get the droplets.

Recently, a group of University of California scientists, led by a researcher called Hangjie Ji, decided to look into the mathematics behind wine tears.

They discovered that a literal shock wave leads to the formation of the tears!

Don’t worry…

This shockwave is not harmful to you as the drinker. In fact, it occurs on such a tiny scale that it’s practically imperceptible to the human eye. However, it’s this wave that explains the physical effects that we do see.

So, how does the shockwave work?

Ji and the other researchers created a mathematical model to explain. This model demonstrated how a combination of the shape of your wine glass, the alcohol content of the wine, gravity, and the movement of your hand produces what they call an unstable shockwave.

This is a literal change in pressure and density, leading to the creating of a wave.

This shockwave then travels along the layer of wine that is on the glass’s surface, which causes the droplets formed by the first part of the process to fall back into the wine in the form of arches.

So, we get the tears forming as a result of evaporation and surface density changes.

Then, the tears fall as a result of a literal shockwave.

And all of this happens in a glass that you literally hold in the palm of your hand.

What Do Wine Tears Tell Us?

There are all sorts of answers to this question, depending on who you ask.

Some will tell you that wine tears tell you something about the quality of the wine. What the exact message is isn’t really known, though it appears that larger tears supposedly represent a better quality of wine.

Others may claim that wine tears tell you something about the wine’s thickness or how sweet it is. Again, there’s nothing exact about any of this, with the resulting explanations tending to be little more than guesswork.

The truth is that wine tears don’t tell you anything about the quality or taste of a particular Italian wine.

They only tell you one thing:

How much alcohol is in the wine.

As we explained earlier, wine tears form when the alcohol in your wine evaporates. This evaporation occurs because alcohol requires a lower temperature to evaporate than anything else in that thin layer of wine in your glass.

So, more tears in your wine means there is more alcohol.

Fewer tears tell you that there isn’t much alcohol.

Now, we come to an even more important question…

How can you use this information?

The answer is that it’s not all that useful outside of being an interesting little conversation point. After all, the label on a bottle of wine tells you exactly how much alcohol it contains. You don’t exactly need to spend time staring into a glass just to figure out how much alcohol your wine contains.

The Final Word

Wine tears, legs, arches, or whatever you might want to call them are interesting.

At least, the science behind why they occur is fascinating. The research tells us that little shockwaves form in the palms of our hands whenever we swirl a glass of wine. And with that, we’re happy feeling like we have superpowers of some description because we can create those shockwaves.

Unfortunately, that’s all that wine tears offer.

They’re not an indication of the quality of a wine so don’t listen to anybody who tries to tell you otherwise. After all, they may just cause you to miss out on a great wine!


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