What’s the Difference Between Red and White Wine?

(Last Updated On: January 29, 2021)

If you don’t drink you might be wondering what the difference between red and white wine is. Which is kind of an obvious thing to consider. But you’re probably wondering what the difference between the two is if you’re really just trying to find the cheapest palatable drink and don’t care what the taste is like. No judgement, but also take care of yourself. Also, we know they have different colors and are supposed to taste different, but why not get technical? What’s the difference between red and white wine?

Can People Tell the Difference?

You’ve probably seen quite a few headlines that we can’t actually tell the difference between wines. Red, white, high quality, low quality, doesn’t matter. Wine’s wine and “wine experts” are just full of it. In contrast you’ve probably seen people vehemently decry this position and tell you this claim is just overblown for clicks. Both sides might cite “The Color of Odors” and studies like it.

Hearing that, you probably reached the conclusion that there is validity to both claims within half a second. The question is how much credence you want to give each side. 

So let’s tackle the claim that wine-tasters are outright impervious to being fooled. Obviously, that claim is just wrong. The human brain is really good at being tricked, something you know if you’ve ever looked at a basic optical illusion. But how easily can we manipulate wine tastings?

Wine tasting obviously has a handful of different spectra. Dryness to sweetness, light to bold. We’ve been producing wine for thousands of years, so to say all wine tastes the same probably also seems a bit bold. 

The Difference

Before we talk more in-depth about “The Color of Odors,” we should outline what the differences between red and white wine are supposed to be. For starters, they’re made with different grapes. Red wine is made with red grapes and white wines are made with white grapes.

What a concept.

But there’s some difference in how they’re made too. It’s not like you make red and white wines the same, just with differing grapes. Generally, red wines are fermented along with the grape skins and seeds–white wines are not. It’s those skins and seeds that give red wine its color. Juicing grapes normally makes clear liquids. Obviously winemakers play around with this and break these general conventions to make different tasting wines; that’s why there’s a whole spectrum to wine tasting. For example white wines that ferment grapes with skins and seeds exist, containing the tannins you normally don’t want in white wines. They’re called orange wines or “skin-contact white wines.” 

Red wines are fermented at warmer temperatures than white wines. Why? White wines, known for their fruitier flavors, are fermented with less oxygen to preserve those flavors. This can be done with the temperature, as well as the container the wine is fermented in. Steel facilitates this better than, say, an oak barrel. Again, these features are not necessarily dispositive, as we saw with orange wines. 

Red wines are known for being based on the tannins in them. Those come from the grape skins. That’s where the bolder, berry-like taste comes from. White wines are often described as more acidic, with fruitier and more aromatic flavors. Throwing in other, secondary flavors, red wines often operate on a more oaky or leathery dimension with white wines often operating in an oily or nutty one. 

The Color of Odors

Alright, so let’s talk a bit about “The Color of Odors” and how it deconstructs wine tasting. The study saw a panel of 54 wine tasters describe the tastes of wine they were given. First, they were given red and white wines as is and asked to describe them in taste and smell to set up a control. Red wines were described as “cedar” or “raspberry” like, while the white ones “floral” and “aromatic.” Obviously they kept track of a whole lot of other descriptors but we’re not really interested in that. 

Some time after that test, the panel was given wine again, some red and white from before. Here’s the catch, each panelist was actually drinking the same white wine from the control. The other glass was just dyed red. Because they’re the same wine, if we were to claim there’s a massive difference between red and white wines, the panelists should have been able to detect the difference despite the coloration. 

Obviously, that wasn’t the case–given how many people call wine tasting a sham. The panel still described the dyed wine differently from the undyed wine–despite the two glasses being the exact same (sans the dye). The red dyed wine was also described more in line with red wine flavors than its white counterpart. 

Other, similar studies have been conducted. The California Institute of Technology did a similar test with a wine panel and bottles of wine ranging from $5 to $90 and then switching the labels around. Expectedly, people generally found what was labeled more expensive preferable. Even outside the realm of wine, blind taste tests with cheap food presented well and expensive food presented cheaply yield similar results.

So is it a sham?

At the end of the day, is wine tasting a sham? Maybe, if you want to claim the human sense of taste and smell is all crap as well. What blind taste tests between wines, microwaves meals, and even the Pepsi Challenge tell us is how important biases are to how we process information. 

We’re constantly taking in information from all sorts of different sources at the same time, and we have to process it all in real-time. That means our brain takes shortcuts, and it makes us far less objective than some of us might like to believe. We notice things that conform to our beliefs and tend to ignore or even explain away things that don’t because we don’t like it when things don’t line up. It’s like when you start wearing glasses and at first feel like it’s not very common. Then a week later you realize that like everyone wears glasses. Or placebos, wherein getting a sugar pill from a doctor but being told it’s a drug can actually induce a physiological response–even though the pill itself does like nothing at all. 

So when our panel was shown wine dyed red, the presentation of red wine led them to notice (or believe they were noticing) the red profile. When most go to a fancy restaurant the food is enhanced by the ornate presentation. 

There you have it. It’s really easy to mess with the human brain by introducing conflicting information. Here are more optical illusions to remind yourself you’re not infallible. 

So you know about wine, but what about where it’s made? Quiz yourself here.



About Kyler 727 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.