The color and opacity of a wine gives you many hints as to the style of wine you’re about to enjoy. Most places where we typically enjoy wine are too dark to observe a wine, such as a low-lit restaurant or, in my case, an office room lit by a computer screen at 2am in the morning! However, if you look at the color of wine in a more scientific setting with clean lighting (and a white background) you’ll see how the colors of red wines are substantially different from one another. Learning how to identify the colors in red wine will help you become a blind-tasting master.
The Many Different Red Wine Colors
The color of wine indicates age, grape variety, density of flavor, acidity and more. By comparing the different colors found in various red wines you can learn to identify a wine just by looking at it.
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Red Wine Color Variance What to look for.
Intensity of Color
How intense is the color of the wine? Is it pale with very little pigment or is it staining the sides of the glass? This pointer will tell you if the wine is lighter/denser in style. Wines with more intense colors tend to be bolder and have higher tannins. The longer a winemaker keeps the skins of the grapes in contact with the juice while making the wine, the darker and more intense the color of the wine becomes. However, along with the skins (that add intense color), there are also grape seeds (pips) and stems which will add increasing amounts of tannin to a wine. Too much tannin can make a wine bitter and overly dry. Hints of blue at the edge of the glass are an indication of higher acidity.
How opaque is the wine? Can you read text through the wine or is it so dark that you can barely see light through it. The opacity of a wine can tell you what kind of grape was used to make the wine and it can also tell you the age of a wine. An opaque wine can also be unfiltered and will look hazy (i.e. more opaque). This type of style is common in Italian wines where the winemaker intentionally doesn’t filter the wine in order to maintain rich textures and more dynamic flavor in the wine.
The main color of the wine is toward the center. Again, the value of the color can tell you how old the wine is. Commercial and value driven wines tend to lose their color pigmentation much more quickly (2-4 years) whereas a wine that is designed to age takes 10-14 years to start changing color. Wines that take a long time to change color also take a long time to develop and taste better after years stored in a cellar.
These are the other hints and hues of color in a glass. In white wines there are hints of green or straw. In red wines there can be hints of orange, brown, magenta or brick. The secondary colors are typically found in the rim of the wine as it goes towards the edge of the glass.
A wide rim variation in a wine can indicate an older wine, whereas a very tight rim variation can show you a very young wine. TIP: A slight blue tinge on the rim of a red wine indicates higher acidity.
Red Wine Color Chart
Color of Cabernet Sauvignon
Red Wine Color Chart, Item 1 Cabernet is near opaque but not as opaque as syrah. At a young age the colors are dark ruby in the center to a magenta tinged edge. Cabernet does not stain orange at a young age and takes a long time to develop the look of an older wine (i.e. pale color, brown/orange tinged and a wide rim variation). Cabernet varies in intensity of color dependent on winemaking and climate. In a cooler climate such as Washington State or Bordeaux France, cabernet sauvignon is more pale and contains less pigment. Again, a winemaker can manipulate these results by letting the grape skins soak in the wine longer to produce a deeper richer color. In my experience, lighter colored and less dense cabernet sauvignon wines tend to have higher acidity. A more opaque cabernet sauvignon will generally indicate a warmer growing region such as California or Italy.
Color of Old Cabernet Sauvignon
Red Wine Color Chart, Item 2 As wines age, density of color decreases and the rim variation becomes greater showing more orange (sometimes brown) colors. The rate at which a wine changes to look this way depends on the variety of wine, producer and region. Generally, fine wines take longer (at the most 10-12 years) to begin to take on old wine characteristics as shown. However sensitive varietals such as merlot, zinfandel and pinot noir can change faster. After four years in a bottle I observed an organic zinfandel from Arizona that was orange-rimmed and looked like an old wine. Wines also take longer to age in larger bottles because of the ratio of wine to air in the bottle.
Color of Merlot
Red Wine Color Chart, Item 3 Merlot tends to be slightly lighter in color than cabernet sauvignon but it also has a special indicator that you can almost always pick out on a younger wine. It has slightly orange tones on the rim. In my most difficult blind tastings of fine merlots, where the density of the wine is that of a fine cabernet sauvignon, the lucky clue has always been identifying the brick red rim. This wine color also looks very similar to tempranillo (as in Rioja), sangiovese (as in Chianti or Brunello di Montalcino) and Montepulciano (as in Montepulciano d’Abruzzo).
Color of Syrah or Shiraz
Red Wine Color Chart, Item 4 Syrah or Shiraz is very opaque as is petite syrah, mourvedre (aka monastrell in Spain) and malbec. These wines have very little rim variation and at a young age go from an opaque purple-black center to magenta right at the edge of the wine.
Color of Young Pinot Noir or Burgundy
Red Wine Color Chart, Item 5 Pinot Noir is one of the most pale red wines where immediately you can see right through it. It has pale red berry (cranberry, raspberry) colors although some fine pinot noir producers (mainly in Burgundy) are able to extract more color from the wine. Pinot noir is one of the most identifiable wines because of it’s pale translucent color. A nebbiolo from the Langhe region in Italy can also be as pale as this, as can some cooler climate grenache based wines.
Color of Old Pinot Noir or Burgundy
Red Wine Color Chart, Item 6 As pinot noir ages it becomes more brick-like in color and a very aged pinot will be orange and brown tinged. The rim variation on an old wine is wide and the color tends to be weaker and more pale.