Lesson 3 – Judging Wine by Color

Wine is an organic beverage and exhibits a color range during its lifetime that can be an indication of its freshness or its maturity.  Generally speaking, white wines should be consumed young, while red wines are better suited for aging.  By learning how to interpret color, you will be able to determine if a wine is too young or too old, or even if it has been improperly stored.

Before analyzing specific color variations though, it’s important to know how to look for them. Do not hold a glass of wine up to the light and look through it.  Instead, use an overhead light source that shines down on the wine.  Tilt the glass until the wine almost spills out.  Do this over a white tablecloth or napkin for maximum light reflection.  This is the only way to make an accurate examination.  Here’s what to look for.


White wines will range in color from green-tinged to brown/amber as follows:

This color ... ... usually reflects this characteristic
Green-tinged Youth
Straw Majority of dry whites
Gold Sweeter, more luscious whites
Light-brown Wine may be in an "off" condition
Brown/amber Too old (excess oxidation)

As a general rule, most white wines taste best when younger or “fresh.” Accordingly, green-tinged or yellow-colored wines will usually be your best bets, while brown or amber hues are normally indications of problems.


Red wines will range in color from purple to mahogany as follows:

This color ... ... usually reflects this characteristic
Purple Youth
Ruby red Some aging
Red Several years of aging
Red-brown Maturity
Mahogany Considerable age (or improperly stored young wine)

Red wine consists of two dominant colors: red and yellow. Red comes from the pigmentation in the skins of purple grapes, while yellow comes from tannins in the skins, stems, pits and oak aging barrels. As red wines age the red tones diminish while the yellows increase. Visually, this results in the wine gradually becoming more red-orange, or "browner." As a general rule, unlike white wines, most red wines taste better with age. Consequently, reddish-brown tones are usually indicative of a better tasting mature wine than those with, say, purple or ruby tones.


The “homework” for this lesson is to buy three comparable bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon: one new release, one with 2-3 years of bottle age, and one with 5+ years of bottle age.  As always, hide the bottle identities.  By contrasting the colors side by side you should easily be able to tell which is which. And tasting should make the differences even more apparent!