When I was a little girl, my mother used to sit at the kitchen counter with two empty bowls and a bag of grapes. One-by-one she would peel the skins off, transforming the colorful green and purple fruit into colorless fleshy beads, place the bowl in the freezer, and later sit under the terrace eating the juicy, cold grapes while my sister and I played on the grass. She would later throw the grape skins in a blender with other fruits and veggies for a healthy smoothie. As a six year old, I thought my mother’s methods were peculiar; now I understand it was a preamble to my relationship with grapes. I recently asked my mother why she would remove the skins if she intended to consume them anyway. “As a Dietitian, I couldn’t stand to discard all those antioxidants. Plus, they gave my smoothie a vibrant color,” she answered. “Color, of course!,” I thought to myself. Grape skins contain the pigmentation that impart color in wine, while the pulp is almost clear and made up mostly of water and natural sugars. There are grapes whose pulp has color, but these are not as common.
Grape colors fall into two categories: black and white, neither of which are literally black or white, rather they are the shades of purple and green we see in the supermarket. Black grapes are purple and make red wine varying in color from rich deep purple, ruby red, orangy-red to a lighter brown hue. White wine is made from green or yellow grapes whose shades vary from golden yellow, bright yellow, pale straw to a slightly lime green. White wine can also be made from black grapes without the skins. Champagne, for example, can only be made from the white Chardonnay grape and two black varietals: Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Rosé wines are also produced from black grapes, which are fermented with the skins for a short period of time so the juice can take on a pinkish tone.
Reds, whites, and roses are the well-known wine colors of the world, but for centuries, the Jura region of France has been making a distinctive type of white wine called Vin Juane, meaning yellow wine. Late-harvest Savagnin grapes are fermented and aged in oak barrels with an air-space between the liquid and barrel top, causing a film of yeast to form across the top of the wine to protect itself partially from oxidation. This process is similar to the making of fortified wine like Sherry from Spain. Over the minimum aging period of six years and three months, the slow oxidation causes approximately 40% of the wine to evaporate. The concentrated brew is then poured into 21-ounce bottles called clavelins. The unique bottle size conflicts with U.S. wine import requirements, making it extremely rare to find in the states. Vin Juane has a characteristic nutty flavor profile with hints of wheat, tobacco, and curry spice. These yellow wines can be pricey, ranging from about €50.00 to several thousand euros, but are said to be the perfect companion to strong cheeses as well as an intense cooking ingredient that will upgrade a dish to gourmet level. Vin Juane is best consumed after ten years of aging and can mature in the bottle for over 100 years.
A category growing in popularity is skin-fermented white wine, often referred to as orange wine because of its coppery color. Orange wines are made in small batches using the old-fashioned method of fermenting white grapes with their skins, seeds, and stems for days or weeks longer than the typical fermentation period of white wine. This process causes the juice to take on a richer color and slightly tannic quality. Some winemakers ferment in open barrels to achieve oxidation or in clay containers buried underneath the ground to deepen further the wine’s complexity and burnt orange hue. Skin-fermented white wines from Italy often have a more pinkish tone, specifically the Ramato style using the Pinot Grigio varietal. Orange wines can also be blends. The Channing Daughters Winery located in the New York Finger Lakes region blends up to seven varietals in one bottle. Other wineries producing skin-fermented whites include Red Hook Winery and Shinn Estate Vineyard, both also from New York, and Scholium Project, Carlotta Cellars, and Ryme Cellars, located in California. Orange wines, starting around $25.00, often have richer aromas and flavors, including apricot, dried papaya, honey, and butterscotch with nutty accents and hints of minerality, lemon peel, and roses.
Color provides the first sensory perception of a wine. While color is not a conclusive factor to a wine’s flavor or quality, it is an indicator of grape varietal, fermentation style, and especially its age. In fact, wine will simply change in color over time: red wine will become lighter with age, while whites will become darker. Next time you pour yourself a glass of wine, pay closer attention to its color. In an industry where red is black and orange is the new white, the color of a wine is more than a shade on the color-wheel; it is a winemaker’s interpretation of his or her own relationship to grapes and their skins.