What gives wine its color?

We can start out simply:
Dark grapes typically make red wine.

And light grapes, white.

But there’s a lot more to the story.
Let’s start with red wines where the grapes typically ferment and macerate with the skins.
The skins have phenolic compounds (flavenols) in them called anthocyanins.
-Different grape varieties have different amounts of anthocyanins.
-Usually, the longer the skins stay with the juice, the darker the color becomes.

In this photo, there are 4 different red wines…4 different grape varieties….4 different colors.
Often, a denser color indicates a more structured, heavier wine and vice versa. In this photo, that is true:
top left: Refosco dal Penducolo Rosso 14%
top right: Teroldego 13,5%
bottom left: Nero D’Avola 60%/Frappato 40% 13%
bottom right: Frappato 12,5%

But this is not always the case. Some varieties like Nebbiolo can produce very structured wine with a light, nearly transparent color.

The soil and overall terroir can also affect color with heavy, clay soil producing more phenols in the skins for darker colors and rocky or limestone soil giving a more transparent color.

Another point about red wine color is how it typically changes over time. Generally, a young, red wine will be more violet red changing to ruby red and then, brick red as the wine ages. Again, the “general rule” has plenty of exceptions with Nebbiolo again being one. It has a brick red color even when very young.

Finally, there’s the big curve ball that some red varieties (with dark red or purple skin and lots of anthocyanins) can be made into white wine. How? By separating the juice from the skins immediately. The classic example is Pinot Noir, which is one of the major champagne grapes. In this video, Charlotte Horton of the Castello di Potentino on the Monte Amiata in Southern Tuscany explains talks about her white Pinot Nero.

Now what about white wines?
First, the skin of most white varieties has light color (green or a blush color) and few anthocyanins. But typically the vintner also separates the skins from the juice immediately, allowing no contact with the phenolic compounds. This accounts for the light or nearly transparent color of many white wines.

Fermenting or aging white wine in wood typically deepens the color. Often, as with reds, a richer color indicates a richer, more structured wine. But again, not always.

Some vintners allow their whites to macerate and ferment with the skins, resulting in wines like this Pinot Grigio. (These wines are sometimes called “orange wines”).

Finally, sweet white wines often have a deeper color like this.

In all of this analysis, don’t forget the simple pleasure of enjoying the color of a wine before you drink it. That’s a big part of the experience of wine which is sensorial…even sensual. The color of wine gives you a first impression, a hint of what’s to come, an invitation to the glass.

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