The Differences between Red and White Wines
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 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.
Other Ways of Categorizing Wine
We sometimes play a game with our friends: We ask them, “Which wine would you want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island?” In other words, which type of wine could you drink for the rest of your life without getting tired of it? Our own answer is always Champagne, with a capital C (more on the capitalization later in this section).
In a way, Champagne is an odd choice because, as much as we love Champagne, we don’t drink it every day under normal circumstances. We welcome guests with it, we celebrate with it after our team wins a Sunday football game, and we toast our cats with it on their birthdays. We don’t need much of an excuse to drink Champagne, but it’s not the type of wine we drink every night.
What we drink every night is regular wine — red, white, or rosé — without bubbles. These wines have various names. In the United States, they’re called table wines, and in Europe, they’re called light wines. Sometimes, we refer to them as still wines, because they don’t have bubbles moving around in them.
In the following paragraphs, we explain the differences among three categories of wines: table wines, dessert wines, and sparkling wines.
Table wine, or light wine, is fermented grape juice whose alcohol content falls within a certain range. Furthermore, table wine isn’t bubbly. (Some table wines have a very slight carbonation but not enough to disqualify them as table wines.) According to U.S. standards of identity, table wines may have an alcohol content no higher than 14 percent; in Europe, light wine must contain from 8.5 percent to 14 percent alcohol by volume (with a few exceptions). So unless a wine has more than 14 percent alcohol or has bubbles, it’s a table wine or a light wine in the eyes of the law.
The regulation-makers didn’t get the number 14 by drawing it from a hat. Historically, most wines contained less than 14 percent alcohol — either because the juice didn’t have enough sugar to attain a higher alcohol level or because the alcohol killed the yeasts when it reached 14 percent, halting the fermentation. That number, therefore, became the legal borderline between wines that have no alcohol added to them (table wines) and wines that might have alcohol added to them (dessert or fortified wines).
But today, the historical phenomenon of 14 percent alcohol as the natural limit of fermentation is, well, history. Many grapes now grow in warm climates where they become so ripe and have so much natural sugar that their juice attains more than 14 percent alcohol when fermented. The use of gonzo yeast strains that continue working even when the alcohol exceeds 14 percent is another factor. Most red Zinfandels, Cabernets, and Chardonnays from California — and many red wines from almost everywhere — now have 14.5 or even 15 to 16 percent alcohol. While U.S. government definitions have not changed, the U.S. tax code has recognized the new reality by raising to 16 percent the upper limit for a wine to be taxed at the table-wine rate of excise tax, which is lower than for a higher-alcohol dessert wine.
Here’s our own, real-world definition of table wines: They’re the normal, non-bubbly wines that most people drink most of the time.
How to (sort of) learn the alcohol content of a wine: Regulations require wineries to state a wine’s alcohol percentage on the label (again, with some minor exceptions). It can be expressed in degrees, like 12.5 degrees, or as a percentage, like 12.5 percent. If a wine carries the words Table Wine on its label in the United States but not the alcohol percentage, it should have less than 14 percent alcohol by law.
But for wines sold within the United States — whether the wine is American or imported — there’s a big catch. The labels are allowed to lie. U.S. regulations give wineries a 1.5 percent leeway in the accuracy of the stated alcohol level. If the label states 12.5 percent, the actual alcohol level can be as high as 14 percent or as low as 11 percent. For wines with a stated alcohol level above 14 percent, the leeway is just 1 percent; a wine with a stated alcohol content of 14.5 percent, can legally fall within the 13.5 to 15.5 range.
Many winemakers have told us that wineries (their competitors, surely!) routinely understate the alcohol content of their wines. When you read a wine’s label, bear in mind that the number you see is not necessarily what you get.
Some wines have more than 14 percent alcohol because the winemaker added alcohol during or after the fermentation. That’s an unusual way of making wine, but certain parts of the world, like the Sherry region in Spain and the Port region in Portugal, have made quite a specialty of it.
Dessert wine is the legal U.S. terminology for such wines, even if they’re not necessarily sweet and not necessarily consumed after dinner or with dessert. (Dry Sherry is categorized as a dessert wine, for example, but it’s dry, and we drink it before dinner.) In Europe, this category of wines is called liqueur wines, which carries that same unfortunate connotation of sweetness.
We prefer the term fortified, which suggests that the wine has been strengthened with additional alcohol. But until we get elected to run things, the term will have to be dessert wine or liqueur wine.
Sparkling wine (and a highly personal spelling lesson)
Sparkling wines are wines that contain carbon dioxide bubbles. Carbon dioxide gas is a natural byproduct of fermentation, and winemakers sometimes decide to trap it in the wine. Just about every country that makes wine also makes sparkling wine.
In the United States, Canada, and Europe, sparkling wine is the official name for the category of wines with bubbles. Isn’t it nice when everyone agrees?
Champagne (with a capital C) is the most famous sparkling wine — and probably the most famous wine, for that matter. Champagne is a specific type of sparkling wine (made from certain grape varieties and produced in a certain way) that comes from a region in France called Champagne. It is the undisputed Grand Champion of Bubblies.
Unfortunately for the people of Champagne, France, their wine is so famous that the name champagne has been borrowed again and again by producers elsewhere, until the word has become synonymous in people’s minds with practically the whole category of sparkling wines. For example, until a recent agreement between the United States and the European Union (E.U.), U.S. winemakers could legally call any sparkling wine champagne — even with a capital C, if they wanted — as long as the carbonation was not added artificially. Even now, those U.S. wineries that were already using that name may continue to do so. (They do have to add a qualifying geographic term such as American or Californian before the word Champagne.)
For the French, limiting the use of the name champagne to the wines of the Champagne region is a cause célèbre. E.U. regulations not only prevent any other E.U. country from calling its sparkling wines champagne but also prohibit the use of terms that even suggest the word champagne, such as fine print on the label saying that a wine was made by using the “Champagne method.” What’s more, bottles of sparkling wine from countries outside the European Union that use the word champagne on the label are banned from sale in Europe. The French are that serious about Champagne.
To us, this seems perfectly fair. You’ll never catch us using the word champagne as a generic term for wine with bubbles. We have too much respect for the people and the traditions of Champagne, France, where the best sparkling wines in the world are made. That’s why we stress the capital C when we say Champagne. Those are the wines we want on our desert island, not just any sparkling wine from anywhere that calls itself champagne.
When someone tries to impress you by serving a wine labeled “champagne” that’s not French, don’t fall for it. Nearly all the respectable sparkling wine companies in the United States refuse to name their wines champagne, out of respect for their French counterparts. (Of course, many of California’s top sparkling wine companies are actually owned by the French — so it’s no surprise that they won’t call their wines champagne — but many other companies won’t use the term, either.)