Wine Color – Complete Visual Guide
Your complete and detailed infographic guide and explanations to the color of wine.
If you’re interested in the chemistry and winemaking facts about what gives wine its color, scroll down a few paragraphs to the ‘what makes the color of the wine?’ section below.
Let’s focus first on some tasting tips, the different hues of various wines, the related vocabulary used by professionals and connoisseurs, and the meaning behind the color of wine… Let’s go!
1 – How and Why to Observe the Color of Wine?
The first step in a careful wine tasting happens before you actually taste or smell the wine.
How a wine looks like is generally called its ‘appearance’. Color is the main and the most important observation when analyzing a wine’s appearance, but not the only one. Observing a wine also entails looking at:
- Clarity: is it clear and translucent, or rather hazy?
- Intensity: how deep and intense is the wine and its color?
- Whether the wine has any deposit, effervescence (bubbles), thick or thin legs or tears.
Observing a wine gives a first impression, and indications on what you’re about to taste. For more on how this is telling, scroll down to the ‘What does the color of wine mean?’ section further below.
Why is this important?
Because no one likes to put something in his/her mouth, and be confronted with a taste that is not expected: like something sweet when savory is anticipated, or the other way around.
If you’re too surprised when tasting, chances are you will have a negative opinion of the wine, even if it would actually taste good had it not surprised you in the first instance. Just think about the last time you were poured a glass of wine and were expecting a dry white to go with the appetizers at a dinner party or a cocktail, and it turned out to be awfully sweet!
If you’re interested in this topic and want to learn more about wine tasting techniques, check out my article on Vivino: The 3 Phases in Wine Tasting.
3 Practical tips for observing wine well:
- Don’t fill up your glass too much. A smaller pour will allow more light through the wine, revealing its color better than a deep volume of liquid.
- Use a white background when looking at the wine, so your observation isn’t biased (e.g. a white wine will automatically take the color of the background, and a rosé will look brown-ish on a blue or green background!). In an ideal world, your light source should be white as well, rather than yellow.
- Tilt the glass forward against the white background. This will reduce the thickness of the liquid, and will allow the light to go through revealing the wine’s hue with more precision. (warning: don not do this if you haven’t followed point #1!).
2 – Hues and Colors of White Wine
White wines come in a spectrum of yellow to brown-ish or orange colors as the chart below shows.
There are many words and vocabulary that can be used to describe these various hues, but just focus on and remeber these 5 and you’ll be fine:
- Lemon-green (think of the color of a lime)
White grape juice is generally of a green-ish yellow color as it comes out of the press.
As the wine ferments and matures at the winery, it takes a firmer yellow color, although some white wines still contain hints of a green hue (like a typical Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc for example). With aging in bottle, white wines evolve towards a brown color, through gold and amber.
3 – Hues and Colors of Rosé Wine
Rosé wines are most-generally made from red grapes, whose red pigments contained in the grape’s skin aren’t completely extracted and dissolved into the juice, giving a variety of pink hues.
The grape juice (technically called ‘must’) being yellow to start with before it’s tainted by the red kin pigments, rosé wines come in the following gradient of colors:
Two examples of extreme rosé wine hues (click for details):
4 – Hues and Colors of Red Wine
Red wines come in an even greater variety of colors and hues as the chart below highlights (no less than 48 different hues are referenced here).
The main 5 descriptors though, are as follows:
- Purple: characteristic color of very young wines with short or no aging in oak or tank at the winery. The purple hues can be observed only to the rim, as a purple wines look dark and generally appear nearly black to the core of the wine glass.
- Ruby: the most common color of red wine, a ruby wine is a clearly-bright red wine, without any purple or orange/brown hues.
- Garnet: when the red color of a wine is slightly tainted by some orange hues, making it look a little bit brown
- Tawny: an evolved red color, with clear brown hues to it.
Red wines tend to lose color through ageing, as the color pigments precipitate when binding with tannins causing some deposit to form.
More importantly, the color of a red wine evolves with time as oxygen combines with the red pigments turning them from a purple-red when young, to more and more orange, then brown.
Note that the acidity of a wine affects its color. Wines with a higher acidity (a lower pH) tend to have a brighter red color, while less acidic wines contain more hues of blue making them lean toward a purple color.
This is also why bigger, fuller and riper reds (like most Argentina Malbecs for example) tend to have deeper color than more acidic wines from cooler climates (like Pinot Noir or Beaujolais). In addition to them generally having higher concentration of tannins of course.
Also note that reds with a higher amount of sulfites in the wine tend to have less color as SO2 binds with the pigments making them partially lose some color intensity.
5 – What Makes the Color of a Wine?
Grapes, like most fruits (e.g. lemons), are full of lightly-colored molecules called flavonoids. There is a large variety of those molecules and their color varies from yellow to beige, or even white.
The color of white wines
The color of white wines primarily comes from these flavonoids, hence their relatively light color with hues of green, yellow, straw, or in the case of Pinot Gris (Grigio) a light grey.
The color of red and rosé wines
In contrast, red grape varieties contain molecules whose color varies from red to purple called anthocyanins. Those same anthocyanins are responsible for the color of many red/purple fruit or vegetables such as red cabbage, beetroot, eggplant or berries.
The color in grapes is primarily located in the skin. You would have noticed it when eating grapes, their juicy inside part, called pulp, is always very pale and hardly has any color. This is the reason why it is possible to make white wine with red grapes (those wines are called Blanc de Noirs wines).
6 – What does the color of wine mean?
The hue of a wine can reveal a whole lot about its style and its age.
For example, you can generally expect from a pale white wine to be fairly light, often dry, and dominated by primary fruit or floral characters. A more intensely-yellow wine however, more golden or with amber hues, will suggest a richer style, perhaps with oak and spices from bottle aging.
Amber- or golden-looking white indicate old wines, or sweet wines matured in an oxidative style.
Same for reds. A lightly-colored red wine is associated with lighter reds, less tannic, and generally with less body and alcohol content than dark ones.
As mentioned above, red wines slow evolve from purple to brown as they age and oxidise. Observing the exact color will give you a first indication of a red wine’s age.
Rosé wines made in a pale color, often salmon, come most generally in a drier and more restrained style (the typical traditional French style like Provence or Languedoc rosé) than the bright pink ones that tend to be sweeter and fruitier.
Is it safe to drink oxidized wine?
There might be many reasons why a wine is oxidized.
Some wines are made in an oxidative style and are perfectly enjoyable, and even better because of it. These are Sherry wines for example, but also orange wines, some Ports (like Tawny), or other fortified wines.
Dry wines that have been oxidized during ageing however, sometimes due to bad storage conditions, will feature a brown color and be unpleasant to taste. They should be safe to drink however in small quantities, although they can cause health problems in larger amounts, just as, if not more than, any other alcoholic beverage.
The charts and infographics on this page were designed and are the exclusive copyright of Bouchard Ainé et Fils, a Burgundy producer based in Beaune France.
Posters of the ‘Couleur du vin’ infographics are available for purchase on the winery website at Bouchard Ainé wine posters.
You can learn more about Bouchard Ainé et Fils wines with all of our wine reviews of their production.