What does colour tell us about a wine?
When we talk about colour in a wine, we can end up limiting our thoughts to the three main styles we usually choose from: white wine, rosé wine and red wine. And that’s not wrong, however, the colour of a wine is hiding a lot of information and is a great way to imagine, understand and better enjoy what’s in our glass.
Do you want to learn about all the secrets hidden in a wine’s colour?
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The colour of a wine can tell us about how it was made
We get to enjoy white, red, rosé and the fashionable orange wines thanks to flavonols and anthocyanins, water-soluble pigments found in grape skins that are responsible for the colour of a wine.
If you cut a grape open you will notice that, whatever the colour of the skin, the flesh has no colour (with a few rare exceptions). When making red wine, the must stays in contact with the grape skins (red), which give it its colour. When it comes to white wines, the must doesn’t remain in contact with the skins during fermentation, so they don’t take on any colour. And this makes it possible to produce white wines from red grapes, known as blancs de noirs.
One exception is orange wines. Despite being made from white grapes, these wines are vinified in a similar way to a red wine, i.e. the must is left in contact with the skins, which provide different organoleptic characteristics and personality from white wines. Prolonged contact with the skins and exposure to oxidation during the aging process results in a wine with an almost orange or amber colour. And that is where the name comes from.
Rosé wines are made in the same way as reds, but unlike reds, the contact between the grape skins and the must lasts as long as needed to get the desired colour. That means the final colour will depend on the contact time between the must and the red grape skins to produce the wine that each winemaker has in mind.
Colour tells us about the age or conservation of the wine
It is nice to be able to compare a wine with a person, both evolve over time, and just like with people, there are wines that age better than others and there are some that, despite their youth, look older than they are.
The colour of a wine gives us clues about its maturity or age. Over time, red wines tend to lose intensity and their colours change from vibrant purple to garnet or tile tones, i.e., they fade. In white wines the opposite happens, from having bright yellow-greenish tones to begin with, aging makes their colour fade and becomes opaque and brownish with a tendency to shades ranging from golden to amber. Rosé wines also show their age. Their vibrant colours, ranging from raspberry to pale pink, can become dull and start to turn brownish.
It is possible to find wines that, in spite of their youth, have been exposed to things that advance their oxidation or aging, like poor conservation, and the evidence of this is clear to see in their colour, aroma or flavour. There may be other wines that are brightly coloured and full of youth, but the flavour may be faded, they might lack alcohol and acidity, and lack in life the colour suggested. There are some wonderful exceptions. Great wines with a colour that shows an advanced age, but that still hold onto an enviable liveliness. Or those made for long aging, like some wines from the D.O.Ca. Rioja, that become something special as time passes by, even though their color in the glass shows signs of a long life.
Colour gives us clues about the grape variety used to make a wine
Especially in red wines, colour can be an important clue as to the variety used to make the wine. Low or high layer wines can be used to describe those with a more subtle colour, like those made with the Pinot Noir variety, or those with such intense and closed tones that we can’t see through the liquid, like a Carignan or Merlot wine.
The fact that a red wine has a less intense colour, which gives the impression of being diluted, is not a reason to judge or reject it, nor is it an indicator of lack of character, structure or quality. Rather, it speaks nobly of the winemaker’s respect for preserving the qualities of the grapes it is made with. The red wines from Burgundy made with the Pinot Noir variety are some of the most sought after and expensive in the world, yet their colour is usually light and subtle.
We hope that these hints provided by the colour of the wine will help you to enjoy and understand more about what is in your glass, but remember that we cannot rely on sight alone, and in this case, on the colour of a wine for a full analysis. We need help from the palate and the nose. What may seem like a defect can become a particular factor that makes a wine unique and special.