Red wine being poured into glass

What’s the Difference Between Red and White Wine (Besides the Color)?

Aside from the obvious, there are some significant differences between red and white wine. From the variety of grapes and the production method to flavor profiles and food pairings, you may be surprised by what all distinguishes the two. Whether you’re an aspiring sommelier or a curious enthusiast, sip back and relax while we go over the most interesting differences between red and white wine.

1. Different Grapes

There are over 1,000 varieties of grapes used in wine production. By and large, the common household theory is true: red wine comes from red grapes and white wine comes from white/green grapes. Popular grape/wine varieties that follow this rule are Chardonnay, Prosecco, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanch.

However, that rule of thumb only goes so far. Purple grapes such as Gewurztraminer, Moschofilero, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Gris all produce white wine. In fact, raw grape juice, whether from a purple or white grape, is pretty much clear. So, while the type of grape makes up part of the difference between red and white, there is more to it than that. 

2. Maceration

After the grapes are picked, they’re crushed into a “must.” Must contains not only the grape juice, but also the seeds, skins, and stems of the fruit. The “solid” portion of the must is called a “pomace.” In order to pull in more color, flavor, and tannins from the pomace into the juice, winemakers use a process known as maceration.

Maceration is the process of soaking crushed grapes, seeds, and stems into a wine must. It is this process that gives red wines their color and tannins. Therefore, when winemakers are making white wine, they remove the grape juice from the skins before fermentation. This lack of maceration gives white wines their lightness and flavor profile.

3. Flavors

Red and white wines have significantly different flavors. Although difficult to generalize, reds generally conjure the tastes of dark fruits like cherries, blackberries, and plums. Conversely, white wines often invoke flavors of fruits with lighter flesh such as apples, pears, and apricots.

However, fruit flavors are just the tip of the iceberg. From peppery overtones to tobacco aftertastes, the differences are nearly endless. In an effort to avoid making a mootable list, here are some of the most common flavors that appear in red and white wines.

RedWhite
  • Black & Red Fruit
  • Jam
  • Leather
  • Pepper
  • Spice
  • Tobacco
  • Citrus
  • Creaminess
  • Floral
  • Honey
  • Minerality
  • Tropical Fruit
  • 4. Structure

    Beyond flavor, there is structure. Structure revolves around the acidity, alcohol, body, sweetness, and tannic qualities of a wine. Like flavor, it’s difficult to make sweeping generalizations as to the structure of red and white wines.

    When it comes to acidity, white wines often pack a more puckered punch. The acidity of wine is what people often describe as bright, fresh, and zippy. It’s the quality that makes your mouth water as you drink.

    Alcohol is a vital element of any wine, but how it’s built into the structure is what differentiates red and whites. Wines with higher alcohol content are often fuller-bodied, and therefore, wines with lower-alcohol content are lighter-bodied. For this reason, red wines typically have more alcohol by volume (ABV) than whites wines. 

    Both red and white wines can have a light to heavy body, but red wines are often associated with being “fuller.” This association is largely due to the fact that alcohol plays a pivotal role in the body of a wine, and red wines often have more alcohol. When imagining light-bodied wines, think Prosecco and Riesling, medium body, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, and full-bodied, Merlot and Cabernet. Chardonnay is the most common white wine that taps into the fuller end of the spectrum.

    Because of the complexities of red wine’s flavor, it generally has more spice notes than sweet ones, whereas white wines lean into the sweetness regularly. However, sweetness can be shared by both varieties. 

    Often, when describing the dry versus sweet scale, the word tannic pops up. Tannic wine coats your mouth and leaves a drying sensation. Because tannins are polyphenols found in grape ligature (skins, seeds, stems, etc.), the maceration process adds this quality to red wines, and the lack of this process leaves white wines with an almost imperceptible level of tannins.

    5. Food Pairings

    A good rule of thumb is this: drink white wine with lighter foods (fish, white sauces, mild cheese) and red wine with heavier foods (filet mignon, sharp and stinky cheese, briny seafood). But the truth is, your choice of red or white will depend on what flavors you’re trying to pull out of the food and wine.

    Complementing flavors will add balance to a meal. Let’s say you’re serving pork belly, a super fatty cut of meat. An acidic, zippy white such as Sauvignon Blanc or Champagne would be a perfect complement. However, you could also hit this meal with a congruent wine pairing by bringing a “big red” to the table, like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. A congruent pairing like this will accentuate flavors and make creamy and fatty meals more filling.

    6. Red Wine is “Healthier”

    Before digging into this last section, know that we’re in no way offering medical advice. That said, it’s well documented that red wine has more antioxidants than white wine. In fact, a glass or two of red wine at night is shown to decrease bad cholesterol, reduce premature aging, and improved bone health.

    On the other hand, white wine is better if you’re watching your sugar intake (which wine has a ton of!). Either way, it’s important to remember that both red and white wines have alcohol content, and the overconsumption of either is associated with a slew of negative health effects. So, be sure you’re enjoying it in moderation.

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