Wine 101: A beginner's guide to wine colours

What's the difference? White, red and rosé wines.
What's the difference? White, red and rosé wines. Photo: iStock

There are white grapes and red grapes. What else is there to know? 

When it comes to how wine gets its colour, the answer isn't black (or red) and white. The skins of grapes (rather than the flesh) contain most of the pigment that colours wine. The concept is simple: the degree to which those skins come into contact with the grape juice before, during or after fermentation largely determines the colour of the wine. It does get more complex, though. Climate, weather, sun exposure and disease can affect the colour of grape skins. And the impact skins have on wine colour once they're off the vine is affected by the time and technique used for maceration (skin contact with juice), oak usage, stem inclusion, oxidation, reduction and age.

HOW TO TALK WINE COLOURS:

At a bottle shop

Is "orange wine" made by fermenting oranges instead of grapes?

Not oranges! "Orange wine" describes skin-macerated wine made from white grapes. Just as red grape skins have pigment, so do white grape skins. This pigment, when left in contact with the clear juice of the grapes, creates an orange hue. This treatment can also create a more tannic texture and some pleasant bitterness. This style is traditional in northern Italy and Eastern Europe but is made all over the world. Skin-macerated whites are often associated with being "modern" and "funky" but are one of the oldest styles.

At a restaurant

We'd like to start with champagne. What is "blanc de noirs" and how is it made?

"Blanc de noirs" is a labelling designation in Champagne, which describes a white wine made from "black" (aka red) grapes. Grape juice is clear and as long as it doesn't macerate with the skins, the resulting wine will be white. Red grapes with red flesh – called teinturier grapes – are an exception. While not very common, when you do encounter them, the resulting wine is often deep and inky because of the additional pigment in the juice. Champagne made from red grapes tends to have more bass notes.

At a winery

What method do you use to make your rosé​?

Rosé is made pink through contact with red-grape skins. There are three methods. The first is a direct maceration of juice on skins. When the desired colour and balance is achieved, the juice is removed from the skins and fermentation proceeds. The second – saignée – is used when the rosé is a byproduct; in order to concentrate the freshly crushed juice for red wine fermentation, pale pink juice is bled off. The third is a blend of finished white and red wine. This is actually the most common method used to make rosé in Champagne.

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Jane Lopes is wine director at Attica and author of Vignette.