I once believed white wine came from white grapes, and red wine came from black grapes. That seemed pretty counterintuitive and made the most sense to me! But once I learned white wine could also be made from black grapes, I knew my theory had a major flaw. So where, exactly, does the color in wine come from?
Let’s start with the basics of a grape. Most grapes have a clear pulp that is composed of water, juice and sugar. If you were to peel the skins back, this clear pulp looks pretty similar in the majority of black and white grape varieties. There are some teinturier grapes that have pink pulps, but the majority are clear.
If you make wine by gently pressing either a white or black grape to release the juice, and you choose not to mix this juice with the skins, the wine will be clear and categorized as a “white” wine. Examples of this are Chardonnay (white grape) and Champagne made with Pinot Noir (black grape). Notice that the end results of both wines are white. In the case of Champagne, the grapes are pressed so delicately that the dark Pinot Noir skins have very little, to no contact with the clear juice.
In short, white wine can be a “Blanc de Blanc” (white wine from a white grape), or “Blanc de Noir” (white wine from a black grape).
The majority of red wines are deep in color because they are pressed and fermented with their dark skins for a specified period of time. Anthocyanins (compounds that give grape skins their color) cause the skins to stain the clear grape juice, turning it from clear to red. Furthermore, grape skins house additional flavors and compounds that make red wine aromas and flavors more complex.
For those that are super-interested in the concept firsthand, you don’t have to be a scientist to try it at home! If you were to take a black table grape and gently squeeze it, the juice will be clear. If you were to allow the skin to soak with that juice for a while, you’d notice that the juice turns darker the longer it mingles.
Most Rosés are made from black grapes in a process that falls in between traditional whites and traditional reds.
Either the juice is pressed with very minimal skin contact to make a light pink wine (direct-press), or the clear juice is allowed to mix with its skins for several hours to make a darker pink wine (short maceration). The wine-maker must decide in advance which method to use in order to create a lighter, or more complex rosé.
A lesser-known, yet emerging concept is “orange wine,” where the clear juice of white grapes is mixed and/or fermented with their golden skins for a specified period of time. The end result is an orange-tinted wine, with additional flavors and body from the golden grape skins.
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