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Wine 101: Understanding Wine By Color

Wine can be described in so many different ways: region, grape, blend, and don’t forget those wine descriptions. People have decided to give up on learning anything about wine other than, “I’ll have what she’s having!” after watching this guy go through the tasting grid!

You don’t have to be able to taste a wine like that but you can learn a great deal about wine and we’re here to help you from the ground up. Check out these Wine 101 posts for a journey into the basics of wine that will take you from, “I’ll have the house red.” to, “I like a warm climate, full-bodied red.”

And So It Begins

Starting from scratch, the first thing people notice about wine, even Somms, is the color. Understanding wine begins with the color of the wine in your glass. Believe it or not, there are a lot of things you can immediately assume and preclude when looking just at a wine’s color. Like the fact that you aren’t getting red fruit in a white, or melon in a red.

 

Color Basics

The color of a wine is determined by two things: the color of the grape and the amount of time the juice is kept in contact with the skins. Today we’ll look at the four major color designations: white, red, rosé, and orange; the types of grapes used to make them, why they are the color they are, and some very basic taste expectations.

 

Grape Color

Wine grapes are, at their core, divided into two color categories: white and red. Within those there are definite variations. White grapes are not white but instead can be gold, yellow, even green. And red grapes can be red, but also purple, blue, and black. Chances are, though, you’ll know as soon as you see one, whether it is considered a white or red grape.

Chardonnay_Moldova1

These, for example, are very obviously white grapes. These particular grapes? Chardonnay.


Pinot_Noir_Moldova1

And these bluish beauties? Pinot Noir grapes on the vine.

Before we get too far in, there are definitely exceptions where white wines can be made with red grapes, but let’s save that for the 200 level courses in wine.

 

Skin Contact

Understanding wine doesn’t require making wine, but a basic idea of the process helps. Grapes are crushed and then left to ferment. It’s during these early steps that there can be contact with the skins. The longer the skins are left in contact with the juice while making wine the richer, and often darker, the color.

Here’s a great example. Pinot Noir is a lighter red wine and Syrah is a darker red wine.

pinot-noir-glass

Pinot Noir

syrah-glass

Syrah

The Four Basic Wine Color Designations

Red and white are how most people think of wine colors, but with rosé gaining in popularity and orange wine officially on the scene, it’s time to rethink how many colors we talk about. Here is what you should know about each of the four major colors as first steps in understanding wine.

1) White Wine Basics

Different-Shades-of-White

  • Made from white grapes and limited skin contact.
  • Served chilled, usually between 49-55 degrees Fahrenheit. Going too much colder will diminish the flavor experience. White should be enjoyed slowly – the wine will change as it goes from a cooler temp to a warmer one in the glass.
  • Colors cover a range from nearly clear to yellow, green, copper, pale orange, gold. The darker the color (1-6) the longer the skins are kept in contact with the juice during winemaking.
  • Covers the spectrum from bone dry to very sweet.
  • Popular varietals include: Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner.
  • Common aromas and flavors include florals, melon, tropical fruit, stone fruit, minerals.

2) Red Wine Basics

red-wine-color-chart-infographic1

  • Made from red grapes and prolonged skin contact.
  • Served chilled, usually between 62-68 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Colors come in a variety of shades including purple, cranberry, and even russet shades like that seen in #6.
  • Range from dry to super sweet but also include a special quality: tannins. Tannins are hard to describe but imagine drinking black tea – that astringency mixed with a little bitter?  THAT’s tannins.
  • Popular varietals include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir.
  • Common aromas and flavors include: red and black fruits, spice, smoke, herbs, green pepper.

3) Rosé Wine Basics

the-many-shades-of-rose-wine-in-a-glass

  • Made from red grapes but in the style of a white – with limited skin contact allowing for the pink hue.
  • Serve chilled, just like white wine, between 49-55 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Colors range greatly depending on the red grape used: you can find salmon, light fuchsia, pink, and light red.
  • While often thought of as sweet wines, dry rosé is available and awesome.
  • Look for rosé from Provence, in southern France for the best understanding of the style.
  • Aromas and flavors will match the red grape(s) used to make the wine.

4) Orange Wine Basics

Different-Shades-of-White

Trust us – you want to try orange wine. One of the oldest styles of wine in the world, it hasn’t been popular in a long time but is making a comeback!  Look for orange wines from Slovenia, Georgia, Italy, and New York State in the US where it is hugely popular due to the climate.

  • Made from white grapes but in the style of a red – with prolonged skin contact resulting in its distinct orange color.
  • Serve on the warm side of white and cool side of red, between 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Colors range from copper to gold, with variation in transparency depending on the winemaker’s style.
  • Aromas and flavors are intense and not what’s expected. They’re bold, can be tannic – yes, things we talk about with reds even though these are made from white grapes. This is because tannins are found in the skins – and orange wines can be in contact with the skins for as much as a year. Honeyed fruit, varnish, tropical fruits, apple – every term has been used to describe orange wines.
  • Pair these with big flavors – Indian, Moroccan, go big or go home!

Final Exam

No, we’re not going to make you take a test before moving on to the next installment. But now that you have a sense of what the different colors mean, and the common flavors and aromas, see if you can identify some the next time you order a glass. Also, those reds you’re storing in a wine rack and serving at room temp?  Pop them in the fridge and take them out for an hour or two before serving them for the best flavors.

Next time in this series ‘all about understanding wine’, we’ll get into pairing and serving wines.

Nancy Koziol

Nancy Koziol is a wine writer specializing in wine news, culture, politics, and emerging regions. She has traveled throughout various wine regions and constantly strives to deepen her understanding and appreciation of the holistic experience of wine, from seed to glass. Nancy writes for a variety of wine publications spanning everything from how to make amazing Sangria to understanding the ecological impact of winemaking. She lives in Vermont where she is developing an appreciation for hybrid grapes - something she never thought would happen - and obsessing over orange wines.

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