If you ever want to irritate an overly smug wine snob, be sure to bring up the UC Davis “color test.” The notorious experiment, which has passed into the realm of wine world legend, supposedly invited participants to differentiate between samples of red and white wine that had been poured into opaque black glasses. I say “supposedly,” because it’s not perfectly clear when (or whether) the test actually took place. But according to popular anecdote, even the most knowledgeable tasters regularly failed to identify the color of their wines correctly.
Mythic though they may be, these results are regularly invoked by skeptics to debunk the entire notion of wine connoisseurship. But far beyond the obvious cosmetic contrast, there are clear and meaningful differences between red and white wine, ranging from production methods to flavor profiles, food pairing possibilities, and more. The more we understand these distinctions, the better equipped we are to put them to good use, maximizing our enjoyment of what’s in the glass.
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Red and White Wines Are Made Differently
We all know the basics. Wine comes from grapes—or rather, from fermented grape juice. It follows, then, that red wine is derived from red grapes and white wine comes from white grapes, right?
Not necessarily. Whether red or white, virtually all grapes produce clear juice. The secret to a wine’s color lies not in the pulp, but in the skins. When making white wine, the grape skins are removed before fermentation, resulting in a clear juice that ultimately yields a transparent white wine. Usually, those skins are white, but many white wines (including a large percentage of Champagne) are actually made from red grapes—a style known as “blanc de noir.”
During the production of red wine, on the other hand, the skins remain in contact with the juice as it ferments. This process, known as “maceration,” is responsible for extracting a red wine’s color and flavor.
Think of it like steeping a bag of tea: the longer you allow the leaves to remain in contact with the boiling water, the darker, richer, and more intensely flavored your brew will be. The same principle applies to wine. Longer maceration times result in deeper-hued reds, with more intense flavors. This is why light-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir produce a fresher, brighter style of red, whereas thick-skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon yield more power and concentration.
Red and White Wines Have Different Stylistic Profiles
By virtue of these distinct methods of production, it’s only natural that reds and whites exhibit unique stylistic profiles, which can be broken down to two main aspects: fruit flavor and “structure.”
The first should be self-explanatory. Simply put, red and white wines tend to conjure different sets of tastes. Although it’s hard to generalize, reds typically invoke fruits in the berry family, progressing from strawberries and cherries (in lighter reds), through cassis, blackberries, and plumbs in richer ones. Sometimes we might note “secondary,” (i.e., non-fruit) flavors like herbs, tobacco-leaves, or leather, which add yet another dimension. For whites, the gamut runs from citrus fruits (for lighter, brighter expressions) to orchard fruits (think: pears, apples) and, moving up in intensity, even exotic “tropical” fruits like guava, mango, and pineapple. Some white wines exhibit a briny or chalky quality, often described as “minerality,” whereas richer whites might acquire oily or nutty secondary flavors and aromas.
The concept of structure is a harder to define. Essentially, it refers to the relationship between all the elements that determine how a wine actually feels in your mouth. Is it crisp and fresh or broad and plush? Smooth or sharp? Heavy or light?
In addition to supplying that beautiful pigment, the skins of red grapes are also responsible for imparting red wine’s main structural component: tannins. Tannins are the astringent phenolic compounds found in many plants, including grapes skins. If you’ve ever bit into an apple peel and felt your mouth pucker up, you’re already familiar with their effects. Tannins function like a red wine’s skeleton, providing the underlying backbone around which its complex flavors can be built. They also help preserve red wines, allowing them to age longer than most whites.
Since white wine is fermented without skin contact, tannins don’t really factor into the equation. Acidity, however, plays a heightened role in the structure of white wine. There are three main acids found in wine—malic, tartaric, and citric— and they’re largely more pronounced in whites than reds. This spine of acidity accounts for white wine’s tart, crisp profile; it also accentuates the wine’s underlying flavors and helps it pair with food, a bit like a squeeze of lemon.
Red and White Wines Pair with Different Foods
The conventional wisdom instructs us to drink white with lighter foods, like seafood and veggies, and red wine with heavier meat-based dishes. This, of course, makes sense. Who could deny the harmony between a rich, hearty steak and a big bottle of Cabernet, or a plate of citrusy mussels and a zippy, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc?
These pairings have emerged as classics, however, not for any authoritative reason, but out of an intuitive understanding of how different styles of wine interact with the various components in food, such as fat, salt, sugar, and acidity. The key is matching complementary flavors and textures.
For the most part, the traditional “white with fish, red with meat” mantra aligns with this basic principle—but not always. A fleshier, fattier fish like salmon, for instance, need not always be paired with white wine, especially if it’s cooked in a pungent mushroom sauce that calls out for an earthy red. Similarly, pineapple-glazed beef-skewers in a peanut-chili dipping-sauce might go better with an exotic, full-flavored white.
As is true of so many disciplines, it’s necessary to understand the rules before breaking them. But that’s precisely where the fun begins.