Fifty Shades of Cabernet: Assessing the Colour of a Wine

Burgundy Chardonnay in the glass

Burgundy Chardonnay in the glass

On a white background (for example, a sheet of paper), examine the colour of the wine.

Look at the wine from above to assess the depth of colour, which can be gauged from the visibility of the stem of the glass.

Then gently tilt the glass and inspect the liquid to confirm its colour and clarity. Especially with red wines, the colour at the centre or ‘core’ may differ from that at the edge or ‘rim’.

White wines range in colour from watery-white through to green, lemon, straw, golden, and even coppery-orange in the case of certain dessert wines. Wines at the ‘greener’ end of the spectrum are usually paler and vice versa.

Red wines range in colour from orange-red through to brick-red, ruby, violet, and indigo—or even ‘black’ for the inkiest wines. However pale or opaque, red wines almost invariably start off as ‘red’ or ‘purple’; with age, the colour softens, leading to more orange hues.

Rosés are typically described as orange, salmon, or pink.

Interpreting the colour

White wines that are fermented or matured in oak barrels are often deeper in colour than those fermented in inert vessels. In contrast, red wines fermented in oak tend to be paler or softer in colour, and red rather than purple.

As they age, white wines become deeper in colour and red wines paler. Indeed, with increasing age, both white and red wines tend towards the same shade of orange-brown.

A pronounced colour gradient from core to rim (typically red and darker in the core, and bronze and lighter at the rim) is a particular feature of red wines with significant bottle age.

In forming conclusions about bottle age oak treatment, do not rely solely on colour; seek to confirm your initial impressions on the nose and palate. Never fall into the trap of shoe-horning a wine into an initial impression: if something doesn’t quite add up, you have probably got it wrong.

With young red wines and rosés, depth of colour is a function of duration of skin contact and thickness of the skins. Thin-skinned grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Tempranillo impart relatively little colour compared to thick-skinned grape varieties such as Tannat, Malbec, and Corvina.

Apart from providing a clue about grape variety, depth of colour also provides a clue about climate and, by extension, origin. High sunshine hours bring out deeper, purpler hues in a wine. Thus, Pinot Noir from Central Otago is typically darker than that from Beaune; and whereas Malbec from Cahors is deep purple, Malbec from Mendoza is inky black.

Neel Burton is co-author, together with James Flewellen, of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.


About Neel Burton

Neel Burton is a psychiatrist, philosopher, writer, and wine-lover who lives and teaches in Oxford, England. He is the author of several books, including The Meaning of Madness and The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide. You can find Neel on Twitter and Facebook, and at
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