The Color of Wine

Chablis lighter than rich Napas.

Clearly wine preference is subjective. However, as in most any field, there are professional standards to be met for wine quality. For many years a perceived metric of quality has been color depth and saturation. Even as I was climbing the sommelier ranks, there was confusion about how the color qualities of wine should be graded.

At professional trade tastings for more than 30-plus years, I often observed wines with darker colors being viewed as superior, which inevitably affects the overall opinion of the wine’s quality. As a culture, wine lovers/aficionados even favor red over white when it comes to reverence and value. This is partially understandable because as humans evolved it was a matter of survival to give greater attention to flora of more intense hue to identify whether plants were nutritious or deadly.

We now know there is no direct correlation between darker color and complexity of aroma and flavor that can be scientifically proven. On an anecdotal level, I can bear witness that some of the most complex and delicious white wines I have tasted are almost clear, such as Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre wine region or Rieslings from New York Finger Lakes wine region. As for reds, I have experienced spectacular barely, dusky cranberry-colored Pinot Noirs or medium-garnet-hued Red Bordeaux.

Earlier generation Zinfandels are lighter.

I and others have conducted truly blind tastings where the wine is not seen — the deep-color bias is disconfirmed. Not only have so-called experts rated the paler wines superior at a higher rate than when seen, they have often confused reds for whites — Sacré bleu.

So aside from getting a chuckle from the snootiness of the snooty — mea culpa, by the way — what is the point of all of this you may ask?

Well, for starters it may provide some motivation and a good leaping-off point to specifically explore wines of a different/lighter color. This means “light for type:” a Cabernet will still be relatively dark compared to all reds, but a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley in France will be much lighter than one from Paso Robles. Certainly, a Chardonnay from Chablis will be much lighter than one from almost anywhere else.

Oregon Pinots lighter than Central Coast.

Also, you are more likely to get less-manipulated wines because darker wines are far more likely to have color deepening and intensifying additives. Yes, there is a much-used additive called Deep Purple.

You may find the whole world of wines that are lighter in color to also be lighter in body and more pleasant in warmer weather.

Exploration is a wonderful reason to rally up your personal wine crew and share the love.