Your inner child will be happy to know that when it comes to wine, it’s okay to like some colors more than others. You can’t get away with saying “I don’t like green food!” much beyond your sixth birthday, but you can express a general preference for white, red, or pink wine for all your adult years.

(Not exactly) white wine

Whoever coined the term white wine must have been colorblind. All you have to do is look at it to see that it’s not white; it’s yellow (sometimes barely yellow, sometimes a deeper yellow). But we’ve all gotten used to the expression by now, so white wine it is.

White wine is wine without any red color (or pink color, which is in the red family). Yellow wines, golden wines, and wines that are as pale as water are all white wines.

Wine becomes white wine in one of two ways: First, white wine can be made from white grapes — which, by the way, aren’t white. (Did you see that one coming?) White grapes are greenish, greenish yellow, golden yellow, or sometimes even pinkish yellow. Basically, white grapes include all the grape types that aren’t dark red or dark bluish. If you make a wine from white grapes, it’s a white wine.

The second way a wine can become white is a little more complicated. The process involves using red grapes — but only the juice of red grapes, not the grape skins. The juice of almost all red grapes has no red pigmentation — only the skins do — therefore, a wine made with only the juice of red grapes can be a white wine. In practice, though, very few white wines come from red grapes. (Champagne is one exception.)

In case you’re wondering, the skins are removed from the grapes either by pressing large quantities of grapes so that the skins break and the pulpy juice flows out — sort of like squeezing the pulp out of grapes, the way kids do — or by crushing the grapes in a machine that has rollers to break the skins so that the juice can drain away.

You can drink white wine anytime you like, but typically, people drink white wine in certain situations:
  • Most people drink white wines without food or with lighter foods, such as fish, poultry, or vegetables.
  • White wines are often considered apéritif wines, meaning that people consume them before dinner, in place of cocktails, or at parties. (If you ask the officials who busy themselves defining such things, an apéritif wine is a wine that has flavors added to it, as vermouth does. But unless you’re in the business of writing wine labels for a living, don’t worry about that. In common parlance, an apéritif wine is just what we said.)
  • A lot of people like to drink white wines when the weather is hot because they’re more refreshing than red wines, and they’re usually drunk chilled (the wines, not the people).

White wine styles: there's no such thing as plain white wine

White wines fall into four general taste categories, not counting sparkling wine or the really sweet white wine that you drink with dessert. Here are our four broad categories:
  • Fresh, unoaked whites: These wines are crisp and light, with no sweetness and no oaky character. Most Italian white wines, like Soave and Pinot Grigio, and some French whites, like Sancerre and some Chablis, fall into this category.
  • Earthy whites: These wines are dry, fuller-bodied, unoaked or lightly oaked, with a lot of earthy character. Some French wines, such as Mâcon or whites from the Côtes du Rhône region have this taste profile.
  • Aromatic whites: These wines are characterized by intense aromas and flavors that come from their particular grape variety, whether they’re off-dry (that is, not bone-dry) or dry. Examples include a lot of German wines and wines from flavorful grape varieties, such as Riesling or Viognier and, in some cases, Sauvignon Blanc.
  • Rich, oaky whites: These wines are dry or fairly dry and full-bodied with pronounced oaky character. Most Chardonnays and some French wines — like many of those from the Burgundy region of France — fall into this group.

We serve white wines cool, but not ice cold. Sometimes, restaurants serve white wines too cold, and we actually have to wait a while for the wine to warm up before we drink it. If you like your wine cold, fine; but try drinking your favorite white wine a little less cold sometime, and we bet you’ll discover it has more flavor that way.

Popular white wines

These types of white wine are available almost everywhere in the United States.
  • Chardonnay: Can come from California, Australia, France, or almost any other place
  • Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris: Can come from Italy, France, Oregon, California, and other places
  • Prosecco: Comes from Italy (and it’s a bubbly wine)
  • Riesling: Can come from Germany, California, New York, Washington, France, Austria, Australia, and other places
  • Sauvignon Blanc: Can come from California, France, New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, and other places
  • Soave: Comes from Italy

Red, red wine

In this case, the name is correct. Red wines really are red. They can be purple red, ruby red, or garnet, but they’re red.

Red wines are made from grapes that are red or bluish in color. So, guess what wine people call these grapes? Black grapes! We suppose that’s because black is the opposite of white.

The most obvious difference between red wine and white wine is color. The red color occurs when the colorless juice of red grapes stays in contact with the dark grape skins during fermentation and absorbs the skins’ color. Along with color, the grape skins give the wine tannin, a substance that’s an important part of the way a red wine tastes. The presence of tannin in red wines is actually the key taste difference between red wines and white wines.

Red wines vary quite a lot in style — partly because winemakers have so many ways of adjusting their red winemaking to achieve the kind of wine they want. For example, if winemakers leave the grape juice in contact with the skins for a long time, the wine becomes more tannic (firmer in the mouth, like strong tea; tannic wines can make you pucker). If winemakers drain the juice off the skins sooner, the wine is softer and less tannic. And heating the crushed grapes can extract color without much tannin.

Traditionally, people have consumed red wine as part of a meal or with accompanying food rather than as a drink on its own, but plenty of red wines today are made to taste delicious even without food.

Red wine styles: There's no such thing as plain red wine, either

Here are four red wine styles:
  • Soft, fruity reds have a lot of fruitiness and fairly little tannin (like Beaujolais Nouveau wine from France, some Pinot Noir wines from California, and many under-$15 U.S. wines).
  • Mild-mannered reds are medium-bodied with subtle flavors that are savory more than fruity (like less expensive wines from Bordeaux, France, and some inexpensive Italian reds).
  • Spicy reds are flavorful, generally fruity wines with spicy accents and some tannin (such as some Malbecs from Argentina and Dolcettos from Italy).
  • Powerful reds are full-bodied and tannic (such as the most expensive California Cabernets; Barolo, from Italy; Priorat, from Spain; the most expensive Australian reds; and lots of other expensive reds).
Thanks to the wide range of red wine styles, you can find red wines to go with just about every type of food and every occasion when you want to drink wine. The one exception is times when you want to drink a wine with bubbles: Although bubbly red wines do exist, most bubbly wines are white or pink.

One sure way to spoil the fun in drinking most red wines is to drink them too cold. Those tannins can taste really bitter when the wine is cold — just as in a cold glass of very strong tea. On the other hand, way too many restaurants serve red wines too warm. (Where do they store them? Next to the oven?) If the bottle — or the glass of wine — feels cool to your hand, that’s a good temperature.

Popular red wines

You find descriptions and explanations of these popular and widely available red wines all through this book.
  • Barbera: Comes from Italy, but can also come from other countries
  • Beaujolais: Comes from France
  • Bordeaux: Comes from France
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: Can come from California, Australia, France, Chile, and other places
  • Chianti: Comes from Italy
  • Côtes du Rhône: Comes from France
  • Malbec: Comes from Argentina, France, Chile and other places
  • Merlot: Can come from California, France, Washington, New York, Chile, and other places
  • Pinot Noir: Can come from California, France, Oregon, New Zealand, and other places
  • Zinfandel: Usually comes from California

Rosé wines

Rosé wine is the name that wine people give to pinkish wine. These wines are made from red grapes, but they don’t end up red because the grape juice stays in contact with the red skins for just a short time — only a few hours, compared to days or weeks for red wines. Because this skin contact (the period when the juice and the skins intermingle) is brief, rosé wines also absorb very little tannin from the skins. Therefore, you can chill these wines and drink them as you’d drink white wines.

Rosé wines are not only lighter in color than red wines, but they are also lighter in body (they feel less heavy in your mouth). They have a fascinating range of color, from pale orange to deep pink, depending on the grape variety that they come from. Some rosé wines are actually labeled “White [red grape name]” — “White” Zinfandel is the most common — as a marketing gimmick.

The rosé wines that call themselves white are fairly sweet; they are sometimes referred to as blush wines, although that term rarely appears on the label. Wines labeled rosé can be sweetish, too, but some wonderful rosés from Europe, including Champagne (and quite a few from the United States) are dry (not sweet). The popularity of rosé wines has varied over the years, but in the decade of the 20-teens, it is at an all-time high (about five times as popular in the U.S. now, compared to 30 years ago). Even hard-core wine lovers are discovering what a pleasure — not to mention what a versatile food partner — a good rosé wine can be.

Five occassions to drink rosé

Here are some of our favorite reasons to drink pink:
  • When she’s having fish and he’s having meat (or vice versa)
  • When a red wine just seems too heavy
  • On the patio or deck on warm, sunny days
  • To wean a son/daughter, mate, friend (yourself?) off cola
  • When serving ham (hot or cold) or other pork dishes

How to choose wine color

Your choice of a white wine, red wine, or pink wine will vary with the season, the occasion, and the type of food you’re eating (not to mention your personal taste). Choosing a color usually is the starting point for selecting a specific wine in a wine shop or in a restaurant. Most stores and most restaurant wine lists arrange wines by color before making other distinctions, such as grape varieties, wine regions, or taste categories.

Certain foods can straddle the line between white wine and red wine compatibility — grilled salmon, for example, can be delicious with either a rich white wine or a fruity red. But your personal preference for red, white, or rosé wine will often be your first consideration in pairing food with wine.

Pairing food and wine is one of the most fun aspects of wine, because the possible combinations are almost limitless. Best of all, your personal taste rules!

Red wine sensitivities: Some people complain that they can’t drink red wines without getting a headache or feeling ill. Usually, they blame the sulfites in the wine. We’re not doctors or scientists, but we can tell you that red wines contain far less sulfur than white wines. That’s because the tannin in red wines acts as a preservative, making sulfur dioxide less necessary. Red wines do contain numerous substances derived from the grape skins that could be the culprits. Whatever the source of the discomfort, it’s probably not sulfites.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Ed McCarthy is a wine writer, Certified Wine Educator, and wine consultant. McCarthy is considered a leading Champagne authority in the U.S. He is the Contributing Editor of Beverage Media. Mary Ewing-Mulligan is the first woman in America to become a Master of Wine, and is currently one of 50 MWs in the U.S. and 380 in the world.

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