Wine Skins 101
By popular demand (aka my daughter, the millennial) this blog post will be about grapes and wine types. Talking to her, I realized not everyone knows what makes a wine a white, red, rosé, etc. I wrote this blog post to help people understand how the color of a wine is determined. More specifically, I want to answer: what effect do grape skins have on wine in general and flavor/color in particular? The answer: a lot and a little. Additionally, can you judge quality based on color? Yes and no. Wine color comes from the skins. Grape juice from the innards of the grape berry is colorless or pale yellow; even red and black grapes have clear juice. The color, whether yellow, orange, red, or purple comes from the time the juice is left in contact with the skins after pressing.
Below I’ll break down how this process differs for each type of wine.
White wine: Clear juice with little or no time left on the skins from a yellow/green (aka white) grape will present as pale yellow or almost colorless in the glass. Along with little color, the flavors hidden in the skins are also not present, so this type of wine would be light to medium bodied, served chilled and perfect as an aperitif or light meal.It also does well when turned into sparkling wine where the yeast in secondary fermentation or oak from barrel aging can add flavor. Popular white grapes include: sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc, riesling, chardonnay, gewurztraminer, viognier, chenin blanc. Lesser known but no less flavorful white grapes include: semillon, albarino, macabeo, muscat, gruner veltliner, muller thurgau.
Orange wine: Clear juice from white grapes left on their skins for extended periods (typically from 2 to 24 hours) will extract color from the skins and appear darker yellow or sometimes orange. There is no “orange” grape which makes orange wine, it is simply a winemaking choice to leave juice in contact with skins to add flavor, color and body to a white wine. This age-old technique has gained favor in the last few years and more wineries are offering this as a unique choice, especially in Portland and the Willamette Valley. As novice wine drinkers who start from light bodied sweet or dry whites graduate to more flavorful wines, this is an excellent intermediate before jumping to reds, which tend to be more of an acquired taste.
Rosé wine: Clear juice from red grapes left on their skins for a short period of time (hours or a day or two) extract a little color from the skins and present as pink, salmon, peach or pale red depending on the grape and time on the skins. The resulting wine is light or medium bodied, served chilled and pairs well with spring/summertime light to medium flavored fare or alone on the patio/poolside. Rosé wines tend to be lower in alcohol than reds so they’re an excellent choice for lunch or daytime when over-imbibing would pose a problem. Typical grapes used for rose wines include: pinot noir, grenache, syrah, mourvedre, sangiovese, cinsault, though any red grape can be used to make a rose wine.
Red wine: clear juice from red grapes left on their skins for an extended period of time (days to weeks or more) extracts maximum color and flavor from the skins. Along with color, the skins impart tannins, an important flavor component that is the hallmark of age-worthy red wines such as Bordeaux (red wine blends with merlot and cabernet sauvignon dominant) and Burgundy (pinot noir only) wines. Tannins present as bitter when young but mellow with time in the bottle (tannins degrade to smaller molecules which are much smoother on the tongue over time). Many factors can affect the rate at which tannins degrade such as storage temperature, size of bottle, cork type and humidity.
Color and Quality
Anthocyanins are the molecules which impart color to a wine. White grapes impart a yellow color and red grapes a ruby, garnet, or purple color. Many people see a pale wine (white or red) and assume a lack of flavor. This assessment can be true but not always. The proof is in the tasting. An inexpensive wine can lack flavor as the winemaker is looking for the fastest way from farm to retail and does not have time to extract flavor/color in order to meet their retail price point. An inexpensive wine can also have color added to fool the eye to expect a fuller body, and a consumer may be fooled (oak chips may also be added as a shortcut to add flavor in lieu of expensive oak barrelling). These techniques are not required to be revealed on the label, but price (is the wine under $10?) is a good indication of the likelihood of these manipulations a traditional winemaker wouldn’t consider.
Grapes, particularly red grapes, vary in the color intensity they impart to a wine. Syrah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon are known as full bodies wines and their grapes impart a great deal of color to the wine. A pale syrah is an indication of a lower quality wine (unless it is a rose and pale on purpose), whereas a pale pinot noir can be of very high quality as the grape skin color is less intense versus a syrah. Again,the proof is in the taste and aroma. Does the wine have a complex aroma, nice balance and a long finish? Then the color is secondary. Some folks like to taste in a black glass so they don’t prejudge a wine based on its color.
Skin contact plays an important part in the hundreds of decisions a winemaker has to make during the progress from grape to glass— and largely determines the type of wine that the grapes will yield. All wines described above can be a delicious addition to a meal or as a nice stand alone sipper depending on your palate and circumstances. Dry, sweet, still, sparkling or fortified, there is a time and a place for them all. All tastes are welcome here!
Understand what to expect from a type of wine and keep track of the wine types and grapes you like so a wine expert, like myself, can help you find more wines in your sweet spot and budget. Keep a wine journal handy whenever you taste or shop for wines. Price is not the only indication of quality and good or great wines can be found at every price point since a great wine for your taste is what matters and not the wine scores from magazines or critics.
Visiting the Willamette Valley and tasting from a variety of wineries will help hone your tastes. We love to show you a cross section of wine styles and can customize your tour to help you on your wine journey whether you want to taste all Pinot Noirs, or no Pinot Noirs, or only whites, reds or sparkling, it’s all available here!
Photo credits: Newsweek, The Spruce Eats
Next time: What is a fortified wine and how does it differ from a distilled spirit?