Wine comes in a range of beautiful colours, from pale yellow to deep purple. But when it comes to red wine specifically, there are four main colour categories that wines are classified into: purple, ruby, garnet, and tawny.
Purple Red Wines
Purple is the deepest and darkest shade that red wines exhibit. Young red wines often display a dense, inky purple hue that lightens as the wine ages. Purple red wines are made from grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Tannat.
The bold purple colour comes from the high concentration of anthocyanins, which are pigments found in grape skins. During winemaking, anthocyanins are extracted from the grape skins and impart a vivid purple tint to the wine. The longer the grape juice and skins remain in contact during fermentation and maceration, the deeper the purple colour becomes.
Some characteristics of purple red wines:
- Very dark, opaque, inky colour
- High concentration of anthocyanins
- Typically made from thick-skinned grape varieties
- Longer skin contact time during winemaking
- Most often seen in young red wines
Here are some examples of popular purple red wine varieties:
|Cabernet Sauvignon||Cabernet Sauvignon||Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Chile|
|Petite Sirah||Durif (Petite Sirah)||California, Australia|
Ruby Red Wines
Ruby is a shade of red that leans towards the lighter end of the spectrum. Ruby red wines display a brilliant, transparent red colour that is not quite as dark as purple red wines. They are made from grapes like Pinot Noir, Grenache, Sangiovese, and Zinfandel.
Ruby wines get their reddish-pink hue from shorter maceration time of the grape skins during winemaking. This extracts fewer of the anthocyanin pigments, resulting in a lighter shade of red. The grapes used for ruby wines also tend to have thinner skins than grapes for purple wines.
Some characteristics of ruby red wines:
- Bright, transparent red colour
- Lower concentration of anthocyanins
- Made from thinner-skinned grape varieties
- Shorter skin contact time during winemaking
- Often seen in young to middle-aged wines
Here are some popular ruby red wine varieties:
|Pinot Noir||Pinot Noir||Burgundy, Willamette Valley, Central Otago|
|Grenache||Grenache||Rhone Valley, Priorat, Australia|
Garnet Red Wines
Garnet is a rich shade of red that takes on orangey-brown hues. As red wines age, they gradually shift from purple and ruby shades to the mellower garnet colour. The change occurs due to the conversion of anthocyanins into more stable pigments over time.
Older Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, and Syrah wines often display the classic garnet colour. Port and Sherry are also examples of wines with garnet hues.
Some characteristics of garnet red wines:
- Deep reddish-orange colour
- Low concentration of remaining anthocyanins
- Conversion to more stable pigments over time
- Smooth, mellow quality
- Seen in mature red wines
Here are some red wine varieties that commonly exhibit garnet colours:
|Cabernet Sauvignon||Cabernet Sauvignon||Napa Valley, Bordeaux, Australia|
|Tempranillo||Tempranillo||Rioja, Ribera del Duero|
|Nebbiolo||Nebbiolo||Piedmont, Barolo, Barbaresco|
Tawny Red Wines
Tawny is a pale, brownish shade of red characteristic of very aged wines. As red wines get older, they gradually lose their vibrant purple and ruby hues and take on warmer orange and brown tawny tints. This is due to continued conversion of anthocyanins over decades in the bottle.
Tawny Port and Madeira are examples of wines deliberately oxidized and aged into tawny colours. Non-fortified red wines usually only reach the tawny stage after many years, at which point they display complex dried fruit flavors.
Some characteristics of tawny red wines:
- Pale reddish-brown colour
- Minimal remaining anthocyanins
- Conversion to complex compounds over decades of aging
- Very smooth, oxidative quality
- Seen in extremely mature red wines
Here are some red wines that can exhibit tawny hues with significant age:
|Aged Bordeaux blends||Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.||Bordeaux|
How Red Wine Colour Develops
The colour progression in red wines from youthful purple to mature tawny occurs due to the continual evolution of pigments over time. Here is an overview of how red wine colour develops:
- Young wines: High concentration of anthocyanins extracted from grape skins during winemaking leads to deep purple colour.
- Middle age: Anthocyanins decline and react with tannins and acids to form stable pigments leading to ruby and garnet hues.
- Mature wines: Over many years, remaining pigments convert into complex compounds causing orange and brown tawny tints.
- Ultimate age: Pigments fully degrade leaving faded brick/rusty remnants of colour.
The progression from purple to garnet to tawny is a key indicator of a red wine’s age. Young purple wines will taste bold and fruity, while older tawny wines will taste evolved and oxidative. The colour gives insight into the wine’s current state.
Other Factors Influencing Red Wine Colour
In addition to age, several other factors can impact the colour of red wine:
- Grape variety – Thick-skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon produce darker wines than thin-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir.
- Maceration time – Longer soaking of grapes results in more pigment extraction and darker colour.
- Oak aging – Barrel aging stabilizes colour and delays evolution to tawny hues.
- Blending – Adding darker wines to light ones increases colour density.
- Vintage – Cooler years result in lighter, more delicate red wines.
- Winemaking – Methods that limit oxygen exposure help wines retain youthful colour.
Tasting Different Colours of Red Wine
The colour of a red wine provides clues about its style and age before even tasting it. Here are tips for tasting red wines across the spectrum of purple, ruby, garnet, and tawny colours:
- Purple – Look for bold, concentrated fruit flavours and sturdy tannins. For example, a purple Malbec may have notes of dark plum, blackberry, and spice.
- Ruby – Expect lighter, more delicate red fruit flavours and soft tannins. A ruby Pinot Noir could have red cherry, raspberry, and earthy notes.
- Garnet – Watch for complex dried fruit flavours and smoother, more integrated tannins. A garnet Bordeaux blend may reveal dried cassis, cedar, and tobacco.
- Tawny – Anticipate rich, mellow oxidative qualities and silky tannins. An aged tawny Port can offer notes of nut, mocha, and dried fig.
It takes experience with different red wine types to learn how colour corresponds to style and age. When in doubt, deeper purple wines are young with bold fruit, while paler tawny wines are old with complex nuances.
The diverse range of red wine colours from purple to tawny reveals a wine’s soul. Young purple wines burst with primary fruit. Mellow garnet wines show developed secondary flavours. And old tawny wines echo with haunting tertiary notes.
Colour also provides the first impression before you ever bring the glass to your lips. So next time you pour a glass of red wine, take a moment to admire its colour. Swirl and appreciate the wine for every shade of purple, ruby, garnet, and tawny that makes it unique. Then taste and discover how the subtle colours of red wine come to life in the glass.