The Color of Wine: More Than Skin Deep
“Red or White?” my host asked, offering me a glass of wine at a summer gathering. Within moments, I regretted my choice as I tripped and spilled the glass of zinfandel down the front of my shirt. C’est la vie.
But, as I lived under a pinkish stain for the remainder of the evening, feeling like the klutz that I occasionally am, it got me thinking about the color of wine and what the various shades in a glass may reveal. After all, the color of the wine is the first thing we notice when we look at a glass, and it provides the first clue as to what that wine may be.
So what gives wine its color? Well, surprisingly it’s not just the color of the grape. When grapes are pressed, the juice they emit is, for the most part, clear, even from dark or black-skinned grapes. What determines the color the wine eventually will take in the glass is largely a result of how long a winemaker chooses to leave the juice and the skins of the grapes resting together after pressing.
For white wines the juice is removed from the grapes during the pressing and then the skins are usually tossed. For red wines, the skins of the grapes play a significant role.
The initial step in making wine is to crush the grapes once they are harvested. This creates a mash-up of juice, grape skins, seeds and, occasionally, stems, called “must.” This is where the magic happens. As the juice and the residue of the grapes sit together, they begin a process called “maceration.” The juice begins to absorb the tannins and phenolics of the skins of the grapes providing flavor, weight and body. The juice also begins to take on the color of the skins from the grapes. The next step is fermentation, which will turn the sugars in the must into alcohol.
Depending upon the grapes and the wines you wish to make, there are a number of decisions that go into determining the time the juice remains in contact with the skin of the grapes.
We all know that rosé is all the rage these days. A rosé made from the grenache grape may be a different shade from one made from, say, sangiovese. It will depend on how long the winemaker chose to leave the grapes on the skins. For a lightly colored wine, it may be just a few hours. I saw a “Rosé Barometer” chart recently that showed seven different colors ranging from “light pink” to “raspberry” that reflected the many shades of rosé.
Bigger, darker wines may sit with the skins for days, sometimes even weeks, absorbing the influence of the attributes in those skins. This will produce boldly flavored and intensely colored wines.
In fact, there are many different colors of red wine. The website Wine Folly has a chart online that shows 36 separate color and hue variations found in white, red and rosé wines. They range from a “pale straw” color, which includes wines that show a greenish tint, like the green-named Vinho Verde and Verdejo, all the way to “deep tawny,” which would be used to describe red wines that have serious age on them. The scale for reds ranges from various levels of salmon, pink, ruby, purple and garnet to that tawny color.
Then there are wines that are neither red nor white. Try orange and blue, for example. Orange wines have been popular in recent years in the northeastern region of Italy called Friuli-Venezia Giulia and just over the shared Slovenian border. These wines are made from white wine grapes such as ribolla gialla and pinot grigio, and are made by fermenting the wines on the skins for an extended period of time. The wines take on a cloudy, orangish hue and have distinct, bold flavors. They’re not for everyone, yet they have found a following and producers in other countries that are experimenting with these geeky production methods.
Last year a cadre of young entrepreneurs in the Basque region of Spain began production of a wine called Gik Blue. The product uses a combination of red and white wine grapes, taking color from the skins, and then introduces a plant-based blue-pigment to the process. The result? A wine that is electric blue.
It’s not for the faint of heart, or significant wine lists just yet, but it is a wine you likely do not want to spill on your shirt.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.