Red or White Wine? Or Something in Between? Decoding the Wine Color Wheel

Here is a brief primer to help navigate these terms if you see them in a store or restaurant.

Transparent whites generally will have been aged in steel tanks or other containers meant to protect against contact with air. They tend to be fresh, fruity and immediate. Golden whites, meaning whites with a darker hue, would most likely have been aged in oak, which might enrich the texture and complexity of a wine without necessarily making it taste oaky, though that might be an unfortunate side effect. It might also indicate an older white or one that has been intentionally exposed to air, which would also change the flavor and texture. Wines in this style are oxidative rather than oxidized, which is a flaw.

These are essentially whites that have been produced using techniques for making reds. Instead of whisking the fresh grape juice off the pigment-bearing skins, as you would a conventional white, the juice macerates with the skins, drawing out color and perhaps tannins. The longer the maceration, the darker and more tannic the orange wine will become. Those wines that have mingled a few days or maybe up to two weeks will be relatively pale. Longer soaking, which might be many months, will result in an amber-colored wine.

Easy to visualize, but are their differences meaningful? A rosé is essentially the inverse of an orange wine, a red made using the techniques for producing whites. The longer the juice is macerated the darker the wine becomes, particularly if the base grape is thicker skinned and darker hued. Paler rosés, like typical examples from Provence, tend to be easygoing, light and fresh, while darker versions, like Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, may be savory, richer and fuller. But not always! Color offers clues but not answers. When in doubt, ask a sommelier.

Not a particularly helpful designation as color in red wines can mean little. The assumption is that the darker the color the denser and more tannic the wine, but it’s not true. A traditionally made Barolo is pale red, yet tannic and long-lived while any number of dark reds will be fresh and easy. Far more useful are largely self-explanatory designations like light-, medium- or heavy-bodied, which describe weight and body. One exception with color: Young reds will be brighter while well-aged wines will seem duller and paler around the edges. But unless you are blind tasting, you won’t need to guess the age by the color.

The pét-nat, traditional method and tank nomenclature refer to how the wines were made. Pét-nat stands for pétillant-naturel, or ancestral method, in which wine completes its fermentation in the bottle, trapping carbon dioxide, which produces bubbles. It’s both the oldest method and newly fashionable, and produces somewhat simple wines that can be fresh and delicious. Traditional method refers to Champagne-style sparklers, in which a completed wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. These wines have the potential to age and become complex, but it’s not built in. Last is the tank method, used for inexpensive sparkling wines produced in quantity, like Prosecco. They can be fresh and likable. None of these methods should be considered a badge of quality.

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