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The Many Shades of Grape: Understanding Color in Wine

These days we can truly taste the rainbow when enjoying wine. Our fermented and fabulous beverage can be found in a range of colors from white to red and everything in between.

But what determines the color of wine after all? Let’s learn about what makes a white wine white, a red wine red, a rose pink, and an orange wine…er “orange.”

White Wine? No Skin (Mostly)

Minus a few exceptions, the juice from wine grapes—white or red—is essentially white. Therefore, a major determinant in the color of wines is whether—and how long—the juice has had contact with the grape skins. The majority of whites are made from white grapes with the pressing of the grapes occurring soon after harvesting to prevent too much pigment or phenols from the skins and seeds from transferring to the juice. Winemakers, however, can choose to let the skins and juice “cold soak” for longer depending on their styles. More aromatic varieties tend to from this longer skin contact. And in the instances of some sparkling wines (and a few still for that matter), red grapes pressed immediately can result in “blanc de noir” (literally “white” from “black”) wine.

Red Wine? Lots of Skin

Made from red grapes—with a few styles permitting some white to be added—red wine obtains its color, tannin, and flavor components from the skins. Called maceration, the immersion period after harvesting is the most important difference between white and red winemaking. The length of time on the skins depends on the preference of the winemaker and grape varietal. Longer maceration results highly “extracted” wines which are deeply colored, tannic, bolder in flavor, and require longer maturation in the bottle. Less maceration will yield softer, more approachable wines that are ready for early consumption.

Rose? A Tad Bit of Skin

Like red wines, roses are made from mostly red grapes by pressing after a short soak on the skins to extract some color (but not fully red), or by bleeding away (“saignee”) some lightly colored juice from a tank of red grape juice. Totally the decision of the winemaker, the amount of color in a rose depends on the amount of time the juice remains in contact with the skins. Roses are sometimes made by blending white and red juice, but are generally made in white wine style once pressed.

Orange and Oxidative Wine? Skin and Air

Orange wines are made from white grapes but undergo a maceration process similar to red wine. That is, the grape juice is soaked on the skins for an extended period of time to gain deeper color and structure. As a result, these wines develop a more coppery hue. Another factor that can impact the color of wine that has nothing to do with skin contact is whether the wine has been made with exposure to oxygen. So called oxidative wines, sherries and many wines made in vessels such as amphorae incorporate oxidative aging and can take on a golden to honey hue.

Ready to drink rainbow? Let’s do it together! Your place or mine? Reach out to me at or visit, Instagram (@thevinicola), or Facebook (theViniCola) to join Columbia’s wine community.



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