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How many colours of wine?

Red, white, pink, orange, yellow and everything in between, wine seems to be available in all the colours of the rainbow. In actual fact though, as far as colours go, there are really just two: red and white. With the exception of some rosé, everything else is simply a variation of red or white wine.

Simply studying the colour of a wine can tell you a fantastic amount about it, from the grape variety it is made from, to its age, its location and even its climate in some cases. Let’s take a look at some of the key factors that contribute to the colour of the wine in your glass:

Colour and character

Each grape variety has its own particular characteristics locked away in its skin and flesh. The winemaking process turns the volume on these up, as it were, so that you can often tell which grape a wine was made from just by looking at it. Take some famous red grapes: pinot noir is pale and cherry red; cabernet sauvignon is opaque and purple-black; merlot is blood red and malbec is magenta pink. With practice, you can even guess where a grape variety is grown by the intensity of the colour palate in the glass. Now, that is one serious party trick!

Colour & body

Wines are often characterised as light, medium or full-bodied. While alcohol is an important factor in determining the final body and weight of a wine (more alcohol equals more body!), the colour is also a hint. Here’s why:

The paler and thinner the grape’s skin, the fewer ‘tannins’ it has. Tannins are what make a wine taste dry and the more of them there are, the more concentrated and ‘heavy’ the resulting wine tends to be. Pinot noir, for example, has a pale, thin skin. When compared to a grape like cabernet sauvignon, which has a very thick skin, a wine made with pinot noir will look – and feel – much lighter.

Colour & age

Very generally speaking, a white wine gets darker with age; a red wine gets lighter and rosé wines go orange. As a white wine ages, it becomes dark yellow, moving towards orange. A red wine also develops an orange tone that eventually moves to brown when the wine has passed its best. Tannins soften and break down after a period of aging so that when poured, older red wines can appear much lighter than they once were in their youth.

Certain winemaking practices can have an effect on wine colour too. Oak aging, for example, often gives a warm, caramel tint to a wine. You can often tell the colour is from oak by the fact that it’s quite a one-dimensional colour. With age, when you tip your glass to examine the wine’s rim, there will be more of a gradual and complex colour change.

‘Orange’ wines and ‘vins jaunes’ (yellow wines) are deliberately aged with oxygen which in a sense, ages them prematurely to create a specific, savory style. It’s much harder to tell the ages of these styles of wine.

There is so much that can be gleaned from looking at a wine’s colour and while it’s never good to judge a book by its cover, you really can make some pretty reasonable guesses about the wine in your glass simply by looking at it.