Making White Wine from Red Grapes

Many moons ago I had an after-work drink with co-workers, and was going to get the first round. My supervisor asked for Zinfandel, and I asked “white or red?” Knowing her, I figured white, but had to ask.

She laughed and loudly said, “You don’t even know if Zinfandel is a white wine!”

Obviously I knew a lot more than she did, so I replied, “Zinfandel is a red grape, and can be made into both red and white wines.” I expect my tone exhibited my irritation, and the subject was quickly changed. [I didn’t have patience for people who like to embarrass others in public, so I my reply was in kind. Today’s I’d handle it better.]

Be be fair, a large number of people in the USA believe Zinfandel is a white grape, because the exposure is to White Zinfandel.

In this post I explain a bit about how different wines can be made from the same grapes.

Note: In the following sections I’m describing common processes. There are other winemaking processes, but a detailed description of them would sidetrack the purpose of this post.

Red Wine from Red Grapes

To make red wine from red grapes, the typical process is the grapes are crushed, inoculated with yeast, and let to ferment. When fermentation is complete, the wine is pressed, producing red wine. This wine is typically heavier in body and flavor because the fermentation process extracts color, body, aroma, and flavor from the pulp and skins.

White Wine from White Grapes

The process for making typical white wines differs, as grapes are crushed and pressed prior to fermentation. Only the juice is fermented.

This produces a white wine that is lighter in body and flavor than a red fermented on this skins. Because white wines are lower in body and tannin, they mature faster and have a correspondingly shorter shelf life.

Please note that white wines with high levels of alcohol, tannin, acid, and/or sugar can have long shelf lives, but this is not typical for white wines. I generally recommend consuming commercial white wines within 6 months of purchase, as the wines are drinkable when put on sale, and there is no guarantee of the shelf life.

“Orange” Wine from White Grapes

Although it’s far less common in commercial wines in the USA, white grapes can be fermented on the skins like red wines. This produces what is commonly referred to as an “orange” wine, as the wines often have an orange caste to them, as some coloring is extracted from the skins. These wines are heavier in body than whites fermented from juice, but don’t have the color like a red wine as white grapes lack the necessary pigment.

White Wine from Red Grapes

White wine can be produced from most red grapes, as in most varietals the flesh and juice are white; coloration is extracted from the skins. The process used is identical to making a white wine from white grapes — the grapes are crushed and quickly pressed. This produces white juice which produces a white wine.

White Zinfandel is produced in this fashion. Also look for “Blanc de Noir” in stores; this is a common name for a white wine made from Pinot Noir, a red grape; Some Champagne is made from Pinot Noir.

Rose Wine from Red Grapes

The easiest way to make rose from red grapes is to crush the grapes and let them rest on the skins for a period of 1 hour to 24 hours, then press and ferment like a white. Depending on the varietal and time period, the rose will be lighter or darker. An alternate process is to blend some red wine into a white wine.

Teinturier Grapes

There is a class of red grapes called Teinturier, where the flesh and juice are red instead of white. I have no experience with such varietals, but it’s obvious white wine cannot be made from them — fermenting the freshly pressed juice will at least look like a rose.

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