“Bottle of red, bottle of white, it all depends on your appetite.”
With all due respect to Billy Joel, those words would never be uttered in an Italian restaurant. Your choice of red or white depends on a lot more than your appetite. What about flavor and food pairings and alcohol content? What about tastes from aging and depth of color and structure of the wine as it hits your palate?
While reds and whites are both in the wine family, they are much more like cousins than they are siblings. They have the same family tree – well, it’s really a vine – in that they’re both from grapes. But from that point forward, they are very different drinks.
Whether you’re looking to impress your next date or give the right bottle of wine as a gift, read on to learn about the differences between reds and whites.
- Red wines are known for its full-bodied flavor and beautiful color.
- They are usually made with red or black grapes. The finished wine retains the deep red color of the grapes because of the fermentation process. Fermen-what? I know. Before I lose you, fermentation is just a fancy way to describe the process of turning sugars (yum) into alcohol (even yummier). Red wine is fermented with the skins and seeds of the grapes, which means it develops that beautiful rich color as it goes through the process.
- Red wines typically have a higher alcohol content than white wine. That’s because red and black grapes usually have more sugar in them. Remember the fermentation process I just mentioned, the way that sugar gets turned into alcohol? It’s simple math, really. The more sugars present, the more alcohol in the finished product.
- These wines are often aged in oak barrels. Aging it that way instead of in large metal vats infuses the wine with earthy – and oaky – notes of flavor.
- Red wines have a different fruit flavor and overall structure to them. The fruit flavors usually found in red wines are from the berry family (all different kinds – and they even throw some plums in there!) with secondary flavor profiles of herbs or even tobacco leaves. The combination generally makes for a heartier, more robust drink.
- When people refer to the structure of a wine, they’re essentially talking about how a wine feels in your mouth. When you’re talking about the structure of red wines, there’s a simple formula to determining the structure: using the grape skins in the fermentation process = more tannins in the wine = astringent compound = that puckering feeling. Tannins are found in the skin and seeds that are not used in the white wine fermentation process so they create a unique structure that’s only present in red wine.
- Red wines can be consumed as a complement to a lot of different foods. They go especially well with heartier meats, but can be paired with lots of different things.
- White wines are made with green grapes, and the finished product ranges in color from a pale yellow color to much deeper shades.
- That whole fermentation process we talked about earlier happens a little differently in white wine. Whereas the red uses the skins and the seeds with the fermentation process, white wines only go through fermentation after the skins and seeds are removed from grapes. When the skins are removed, what’s left is a clear liquid and that’s the only thing that’s fermented.
- White wines usually have a lower alcohol content. Because the green grapes have less sugar, and the sugar is what converts to alcohol, it means that the white wines have less alcohol. It’s a good excuse to have that extra glass…
- White wines are usually aged in stainless steel vats, although sometimes whites are aged in oak barrels like reds. Chardonnay is a good example of this. But when it’s aged in stainless steel vats, there is no flavor imparted from the vat itself into the wine. That differs from the oak barrel aging of red wines, where the exposure to the wood and oxygen changes the flavor of the wine.
- The fruit flavors found in white wines tend to be from all kinds of light fruits, from citruses to orchard fruits to exotic fruits. White wines are also more acidic and tart than their red counterparts, and often have a secondary flavor that has a hint of minerals.
- The structure of white wine has an equation much like red wine does. This time the equation is high acidity = more tart taste profile = pairs well with more foods.
- What kinds of food does white wine pair well with? So glad you asked. Conventionally, white wine goes really well with lighter foods like fish, chicken, seafood, or veggies. However, it can also hold up against some heavier foods too, as you can see in the chart.
There are so many differences between these two types of wines, but within both reds and whites, there are also many different flavors and structures and tastes. The danger comes when you give in to the temptation to lump all of one kind together. “I don’t like reds because they’re too okay” or “White wines aren’t my jam because they are too acidic.”
Our recommendation? Maybe Billy Joel was right after all. Listen to your appetite and what you’re craving. When you’re cooking dinner at home, whether it’s Italian food or not, don’t be afraid to keep experimenting with both kinds. Try a lot of different bottles from a lot of different wineries and regions of the world. We know you’ll find many different kinds in both the red and the white wines that you’ll enjoy!