On the surface, it seems simple enough — red wine is made from red grapes, and white wine is made from white grapes.
Except actually, red wine is made from blackish-purple grapes of varying shades and intensities, while white wine is made from grapes that run the gamut colour-wise from bright green to reddish-gold.
And once you start to think about how grape skins vary from variety to variety, you start to put together one of the most immediately noticeable traits of a wine — its colour.
The colour you see in wines come from pigments (or anthocyanins) found in the grape skins. With most white wines, grapes are picked, crushed and pressed in relatively quick succession before fermentation, separating the juice from the skins and thereby imparting very little colour.
Red grapes, meanwhile, are picked and crushed, but pressing typically occurs after fermentation, meaning the juice and the skins have sat together for days, imparting that red colour (as well as some tannin).
In theory, you could make white wine from red grapes if you treated them the same way you treated white grapes. The opposite isn’t true, although there’s one grape that might get close. More on that in a minute.
With white wines, you tend to see the most depth of colour in wines made from grapes such as Chardonnay or Viognier. This is more often than not the result of the way the wine has been treated — i.e. it has been aged in oak barrels before being bottled, and/or is a slightly older vintage (white wines get deeper in colour with age).
Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio wines are interesting in that they sometimes have an almost orangey-pinkish hue to the wine. Pinot Gris grapes are more like pale red grapes skin colour-wise than green ones; as a result, some colour can bleed into the wine even in the few hours before the skins are removed prior to fermentation.
With red wines, there’s more variation in colour based on both the grape variety and how the wine is made. A Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, will be lighter in colour if the period of skin contact is shorter — often the case with less expensive/fruitier wines. Lengthier skin contact results in deeper-coloured wines that typically are heavier, bring more tannin, and are more prone to aging.
Pinot Noir is one of the most easily recognizable wines because of its colour — the skins aren’t as loaded with anthocyanins, and as a result Pinot tends to be lighter and less opaque than most wines. Malbec, meanwhile, is the polar opposite — the wine is often inky black and opaque thanks to thicker, more dense skins.
And, in contrast to white wines, reds tend to get lighter in colour as they get older, although both whites and reds pick up brownish tinges with age.
Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson is the wine columnist and literary editor for the Winnipeg Free Press. He’s on Twitter and Instagram at @bensigurdson.