What else can a wine’s color mean?
If you know what to look for, then many clues to a wine’s style are apparent before you even take a sip.
White wines with a golden cast, for example, are more likely to be either oaky, or sticky-sweet, than those that look water-white. Pale, translucent red wines are often lighter-bodied than more opaque reds, while a rosé’s hue is a visible indication of its flavor intensity.
The rule of thumb to remember is that white wines will always deepen in color over time, while red wines will grow paler as they mature, and their purple-red color will shift toward orange-red.
Why? All wines oxidize as they age, and will eventually die and turn brown if they’re not consumed first. This process goes much faster in porous oak barrels than in steel tanks, but continues in glass bottles, where a bubble of air is found under every cork.
This means that regardless of color, wines tinged with golden-brown are almost always those that have seen aging, whether in barrels at the winery or in bottles in the cellar.
White wines do grow darker with age, moving from white to yellow to gold to bronze — but there can be another reason for a vivid hue. White wines that are unusually concentrated, such as dessert wines and fortified wines, often look darker than standard dry whites.
Red wines lose their youthful hues as they slowly oxidize — moving from purple to blood red to garnet to rusty orange — but they also get paler over time. Color compounds in red wines eventually coalesce into larger and larger particles, which succumb to gravity and settle as sediment.
And, of course, even in youth, the type of grape, degree of ripeness, and techniques used to extract color from the skins will all affect a red wine’s color. Thin-skinned grapes like pinot noir make paler wines than those from thicker-skinned varieties like syrah; and fruit from sunny regions provides deeper, more blue-purple color than cooler-climate grapes.
Marnie Old is one of the country’s leading wine educators. Formerly the director of wine studies for Manhattan’s French Culinary Institute, she is best known for her visually engaging books published by DK – such as Wine: A Tasting Course. Marnie currently serves as director of vinlightenment for Boisset Collection. Read her recent piece How to Judge Wine Styles By Their ABV.