A Whiter Shade of Pale
In the same way that black coffee isn’t truly black and green thumbs aren’t green, white wine certainly isn’t white. Hold a glass of white wine against a white background, such as a napkin or linen tablecloth, and the colour of the liquid will range from pale yellow-green to deep amber.
Surprisingly, most grape juice is clear. Bite into a red grape and you’ll find its flesh as pale as water. Wine colour is not derived from the colour of juice but from the juice’s contact with grape skins during fermentation.
Colour can also indicate age. A fresh, young wine will reflect greenish-yellow glints, while a mature or oak aged wine will sport a golden hue. White wine becomes deeper gold with age. If left beyond its peak, spoiled wine turns amber brown.
Vinho Verde from northern Portugal is bottled so young that its very name reflects its youth: vinho verde means green wine in Portuguese. Because Vinho Verde is bottled immediately after fermentation, fermentation bubbles skitter into its slim bottle, giving a light effervescence.
Always quaffed young, Vinho Verde is a pale straw colour, with glints of youthful green. The wine’s light alcohol, intensely fresh aromas and crisp lightness make it a perfect lunchtime wine or an aperitif. Or, for the brave of heart, Vinho Verde is well-suited for grilled sardines as its tartness balances the oiliness.
Grapes grown in cool climates have difficulty gaining colour, so they produce lighter-coloured wines than grapes cultivated in warmer climates. German wines are pale and often have a touch of spritziness as well. Contrast a pale German Riesling with a more deeply coloured wine from a warm climate.
Many winemakers prefer to let wines mature in traditional oak barrels for a few years before bottling. This is referred to as oak ageing or barrel maturation. The wood’s colour compounds are imparted into the wine and by hastening the ageing process. The porous nature of wooden barrels allows oxygen to subtly mature or oxidize white wines, imparting a golden tone to the wine.
Compare a pale Chablis, which has no oak aging, with a rich oak-matured Australian Chardonnay. The colour effects of barrel maturation are obvious. The medium gold colour the Chardonnay is a sure indicator of oak flavors in the wine.
Describe white wines as pale-gold, pale straw, pale-yellow, yellow-gold, deep-gold or amber. Or, if you’ve left an open bottle on the counter a few weeks, call it nasty oxidized brown. Definitely not white.