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The Difference Between Red And White Wine

I give quite a few tours to folks who stop by and visit Deerfield’s wine caves. Sometimes people are surprised that it’s possible to make white wine from red grapes so I thought I’d take some time to set the record straight. The fundamental difference between red wine and white wine is that red wines are fermented while in contact with the grape skins. It’s true there are red and white skinned grapes. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier are all white skinned grapes that are made into white wines. In the case of white wines, as soon as the grapes have been harvested and sorted they are immediately put into the press and the juice is transferred into a vessel (such as a barrel or tank) for fermentation. Some red colored grapes are also treated the same way. The most famous example would be Champagne. Shocking as it may be, that golden bubbly we’re so familiar with is derived from grapes as red as Pinot Noir. Fun fact: Currants, which are known for their dark hue, are dried Champagne grapes.

Red wines on the other hand are fermented along with the skins of red grapes, necessitating the use of punchdowns and pumpovers described in past articles. It is incredible how quickly the color is transferred from the skins to the liquid. During maceration (when the skins are crushed to release the juice), even if the juice is only exposed to the skins for 30 minutes it will develop a pinkish hue. There are several different methods for making rosé and one of them involves allowing a few hours of contact with the skins before pressing the grapes – that’s all it takes! For red wines, it’s only after the juice has fully fermented that the wine is drained off and the remaining skins are pressed.

Beyond coloration, there is a key component that separates red and white wines. One among many reasons that wine is unique among our beverage choices is that grapes contain tannins. Tannins are found in the stems, seeds and skins of grapes yet not in the “must” or the juicy meat of the grape. Tannins are found in oak as well, so a Chardonnay aged in new oak barrels does have tannin in it. A stainless steel fermented and aged Chardonnay would have little to none.

The only thing that prevents winemakers from making more white wines from red grapes is tradition. The now infamous White Zinfandel isn’t made from an offshoot of the Zin varietal with lighter skins. It’s just rosé made from regular Zinfandel grapes! In fact, when it was first created by Sutter Home in the 1970s it was an accidental product of a stuck fermentation. Though many people may not be reaching for White Zinfandel nowadays, we have its popularity to thank for saving California’s Zin vines so we can enjoy wines like Deerfield’s 2006 Old Vine Zin today. Experimenting can be fun and lead to some unexpected results. The wine I made this past harvest could actually be considered a White Pinot Noir!

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