Wine Words: Color

published May 14, 2012
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

The first thing we notice about a wine is its color. At its simplest, a wine is red, white or rosé. However, the different nuances of a wine’s color can suggest lots of things about the wine’s age, its grape variety and even how it was made.

White wines
White wines tend to range in color from pale lemon to lemon to varying shades of gold. Young wines often have a slight green hue and quite a watery rim. As white wines age the color deepens, moving through shades of gold to deep amber. White wines that have been fermented and/or aged in oak will start out more golden in color than young unoaked wines, which are the palest of all in color.

Some white wines go through a pre-fermentation maceration (cold soak) on the skins – this can add some intensity to the color. Occasionally Pinot Grigio wines can have a very slight pink hue. This is because Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris is actually a pinkish/grey-skinned variety. Stronger pressings allow some color to seep into the juice.

There is a recent return to what is called ‘orange’ wines – whereby white wines are fermented on the skins in a very traditional, more oxidative manner. These wines are orange in color, partly due to the skins, partly due to the oxidative handling and partly due to their generally long aging before bottling.

Rosé wines
Young rosé wines generally range in color from very pale salmon to sockeye or coppery salmon to varying shades of neon pink. As Rosé wines age, the color fades to orange or even onionskin color. The intensity of the rosé color depends largely on the maceration time whereby the black grapes are gently crushed and the juice is left in contact with the skins for short time to extract just enough color to achieve the desired ‘pink’ hue.

Red Wines
In contrast to white wines, which deepen in color with age, red wines lose color and become paler with age. Young red wines start out as varying shades of ruby or crimson. Because red wines are fermented on the skins, and the color comes from the skins, there is a very wide range of colors. Thick-skinned varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec or Syrah can be almost purple in youth. In contrast thin-skinned varieties such as Pinot Noir, Gamay or Grenache are paler ruby when young. As red wines age, the rim takes on a garnet hue, then the wine evolves to tawny and finally a brick brown color. The level of extraction during fermentation also influences the depth of color in a red wine. More extraction makes for deeper colored wines.

So the next time you have a glass of wine in hand try to decipher some of these little nuances.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.

Previous Wine Words