The Color of Wine

The Color of Wine

The first thing we need to remember about color in wine is that all grape juice is white.  Red wine gets its color (and its flavor) when the juice is left on the skins of the crushed grapes for a certain period of time.  White grape skins don’t impart color – that comes from the aging and how much contact with oak (if any) the winemaker decides to use.

But understanding color (which is the “See” step of our “5-S Approach) is important because color and clarity can give us important clues about what’s waiting for us when we get ready to swirl, sniff, and sip.

The color and body of a wine is the result of both nature and nurture.  In French, they call the process of winemaking elevage, which means “upbringing.”  You make wine like you raise a child — according to them, anyway.

It all starts, of course, in the vineyard.  Certain grapes have more natural sweetness or acidity or color than others.  Some are really black, others are purple.  There are similar variations of color and intensity in whites and all wine grapes.  And color also depends on the level of ripeness when harvest time rolls around.  But once in the cellar, it’s up to the winemaker to take advantage of nature’s bounty and apply his or her style and approach to the final product.  There are lots of ways to do that.

Number one is whether the crushed grapes are fermented in large oak vats or stainless steel.  Two, how long do we leave the juice in contact with the skins?  For example, Rosé wines are made by draining the juice off red grape skins very quickly, so it gets a very faint pink color.  Then, what else can we do to maximize the skin contact and extract the most color from the grapes? 

Glad you asked.  First, we can “punch down.”  After the crush, the skins rise to the top of the liquid and form a layer called a cap.  If you press the skins back down into the juice (usually a few times a day) you’ll extract more color, flavor, and other structural components.

It’s hard work.  Here’s what the process looks like. 

More elaborate wineries have a system where the wine from the bottom of the vat can be pumped to the top, and as it settles back down through the skins, more flavor and color comes out.  This is called “pumping over.”  This process is also done usually a few times a day.

For whites, the color generally ranges from pale straw to deep brown based on two conditions:  the age of the wine and its contact with oak.  White wines gain color as they age, so darker wines will generally be older.  If the color is very pale, the wine is young and unoaked.  A darker color is your tipoff that the wine has spent some time in a barrel.  Also, the wine can be made sweeter by extended skin to juice contact and will have more pigment in it.

So, remember these tips when you first start evaluating your wine.  Tip the glass sideways over a white surface, notice the brightness and color intensity…then swirl, sniff, and sip!

If you have any questions about the wines you receive, or about the world of wine in general, please email me at  I’m always happy to help.  Here’s to you!

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