A Guide to The Color of Wine (and what it can tell you)

Understand the various colors of red and white wine, and explore what you can learn about a wine from its hue, intensity, and opacity.

There are many ways to evaluate and characterize a wine, the most notable of which is by flavor. But the first step that a seasoned sommelier will always take when trying a new wine is its appearance. Among other visual indicators, the color of wine stands out as the best first impression a bottle can give you.

For those of us that aren’t self-proclaimed oenophiles (lovers and proud connoisseurs of the world of wine), we might not even notice the color when we pour a glass. However, there’s much to be missed in the drinking experience if you’re not paying attention. Today we’ll explore the range of colors when it comes to wine, and dive into what it can tell us about the bottle in question.

Let’s start with the basics: red, white and rosé

When producers and retailers categorize wine, there are typically three color categories; red wine, white wine, and rosé wine. Contrary to popular belief, red wine doesn’t necessarily come from red grapes and white from green grapes (and while we’re at it, chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows either). During the process of producing white wine, the skin is removed from the grapes before fermentation. Red wine, on the other hand, is fermented with the grape skins present. The process of making rosé falls somewhere in between the two; red grape skins are mixed in for a limited time (usually a few hours to a few days) and then removed, resulting in a wine that’s only slightly red in color.

Already, the differences in how wines are produced create some differences in flavor. White wines tend to be lighter and fruitier, while reds are richer and more bitter, because the skins, seeds, and stems were left in during fermentation.

The range of color in white and red wines

Now that we’re separated wines based on their color groups. Let’s dive deeper into the variation within each color variety. This is where the type of grape used to make the wine often comes into play, along with some other factors.

Color variety in white wines

White wines range from pale straw to deep yellow, and generally get more intense in flavor the darker and more intense the color. On the less intense, lighter side of the spectrum are wines like Riesling, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc. The darker, more yellow colors are typically more full-bodied white wines like Chardonnay. There are also less tannins in white wines that are lighter in color, as they’ve had little-to-no contact with the skins, seeds, and stems during fermentation. As white wines age, they typically get more opaque, and the color turns duller, more like an amber or light brown. There will also be more color variation and a wider rim on an older white wine.

Color variety in red wines

Similar to white wines, red wines range from less intense to more intense as the color deepens. From the lighter end are less intense red wines such as Pinot Noir and Sangiovese, and on the more full-bodied end of the spectrum are wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Sirah. Intensity aside, there’s also a range in the hue of red wines, from more purple varietals to more true reds. As red wines age, they get duller in color, but unlike white wines, they actually get less opaque with time.


Color of wine guide red and white

What we can infer about a wine based on its color

While no statement is true 100% of the time, we can make some assumptions about a particular wine based on some general rules of color.

Trends in white wine color

  • Intensity: White wine tends to be more intense in flavor when it’s more intense in color. Deeper, more yellow white wines and more intense then paler, more muted white wines.
  • Age: White wine gets duller, more opaque, and more amber in color with age. Younger white wines are brighter, more transparent, and closer to yellow or straw in color. Most white wines are produced for consumption within a few years and don’t age as well as red wines.
  • Acidity: Lighter white wines typically have higher levels of acidity than deeper color white wines. This comes down to pH level, as the higher the pH, the darker or more intense the color of a wine.
  • Flavor: Predicting a white wine’s flavor based on its color is a true artform, and takes years of practice to master. Some examples of this are that more buttery Chardonnays tend to be a rich gold color, and lighter, more yellow wines are fruitier. Next time you try a wine, predict what you might taste based on the color. Then see if you’re right!

Trends in red wine color

  • Intensity: Like white wines, red wine tends to be more intense when the color is more intense. Full-bodied wines are often incredibly rich in color and impossible to see through (very opaque) versus light-bodied reds that are brighter and more transparent.
  • Age: Many red wines are intended for aging, thus the saying “aged like a fine wine” – and there are noticeable differences in color as this process moves along. As red wines age, they get duller in color and less opaque with time.
  • Acidity: Red wines that are more red in color (less purple or blue) tend to have a lower pH, and thus are more acidic. In fact, the more blue a wine is in hue, the higher the pH likely is, and the less acidic the wine.
  • Tannin: In general, red wines with higher tannin levels tend to be more opaque, or harder to see through than those with fewer tannins.
  • Climate: Here’s a neat trick: you have a shot at predicting where a wine was produced based on its color! The lighter and brighter a wine, the more likely it is to be from a cooler climate. The darker and more intense the color, the more likely the wine is from a warmer climate. This can partially explain why some wines of the same varietal might differ, for example, a Cabernet from Bordeaux versus a Cabernet from Napa Valley.

Tips for observing the color of wine 

Observing the color of wine doesn’t need to take longer than a moment or two, but there are a few ways to improve your wine-observation skills. For starters, inspect wines in natural light against a white background to get the most accurate read on the color. Near a window in front of a white wall is perfect!

Tilt the glass to see how the wine spreads as it travels up towards the rim, and notice how the colors separate. This can indicate a wine’s age or intensity. It will also give you a better look at the hue of the color with a smaller sampling of the wine.

how to observe the color of wine


The wine color glossary

If you don’t have the taste buds to make astute observations about a wine’s flavor, and phrases like “long on the palate” and “well-balanced” make you cringe, this is your chance to shine at your next dinner party. You can describe a wine without even tasting it simply based on its color. Sound like a pro when you bring up these sommelier-approved words and actually know how to use them!

  • The hue of wine is a description of its color. Regardless of how intense it is, how much you can see through the glass, or the spread of the rim, try to isolate only the true tone of the color when you’re describing the hue. For white wines, this might be green, straw, yellow, gold, amber, or brown. For rosé or red wines, words like salmon, pink, ruby, purple, garnet, and tawny can be used to describe a wine’s hue. If you’re not particularly color inclined, think of where on the color wheel you might place a wine. If it’s a white, is there more green color or more red color in the wine? If there’s more green, it might fall more towards straw, whereas if there’s more orange or red tones, it might be a yellow or gold wine. Similarly for red wines, consider if the hue has more blue or red to it. Bluer wines are considered more purple, and as more red is added they might be ruby or garnet.
  • The intensity of a wine’s color describes how rich or bold the color is. More intense wines have a deeper, richer color, while less intense wines have a lighter, less rich color. While assessing a wine’s color intensity, remember to view it at an angle so you can truly see the intensity of the color and aren’t fooled by the depth of the glass.
  • Opacity refers to how easily you can see through a wine. Could you read a newspaper or see across a room through it? It’s likely more transparent or has a lower opacity. If you can’t see anything through the glass, then it’s more opaque or less transparent.

how to describe the color and appearance of wine


Want more pocket guides and wine education? Check out our other posts!

Read: A guide to choosing the right wine glass

Read: Wine temperature serving guide (popular!)

For personalized recommendations and a wide selection of fine and rare wine, get in touch with one of our fine wine experts at The Wine Cellarage.

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