Decoding the Complicated Color Wheel of Wines

Wine seems both deceptively simple and unrelentingly complicated.

The complicated part is obvious: unfamiliar names ready to trip up all but the most avid devotee; myriad facts, including varieties of soil, sources of oak barrels, winemaking techniques and so on; obscure grapes from esoteric places. And of course, the deconstructed aromas and flavors that many people assume is the way one is supposed to think and talk about wine.

The simple stuff? You used to be able to go into a restaurant in New York, a cafe in Paris or an osteria in Florence and order a glass of red or white. That was all you needed to know if you simply wanted the wine without the rigmarole.

Now? The once easy-to-understand range of red, white and occasionally rosé and sparkling has expanded into a far more challenging spectrum of choices. The basics remain, but in between lie incremental alternatives that may offer a richer selection but require a greater degree of understanding.

Consider the options that now turn up on contemporary retail shelves or wine lists. You might be asked to choose from transparent whites or golden whites, orange wines ranging from pinkish to amber, rosés in pale or dark hues and reds that are light, dark or somewhere in between.

Additional subdivisions further complicate matters. If you want a sparkling wine, would that be pét-nat, traditional method or tank? Do you want that red chillable? Or dense and heavy? Perhaps you would like an oceanic white, or would you prefer it to be mountain?

This is great news for consumers, even if it may not seem like it. What follows is a guide to some of the terms you might see. But first I want to give a bit of context to this explosion of complexities.

The recent history of wine, say the last 50 years or so, has been characterized by more wines coming from more places, made of more grapes and in more styles than ever before. Many of these grapes and styles existed for centuries in localized forms. But now they are shipped around the world.

This rapid expansion has occurred not only with wines coming from new and different places, but from within long-established regions. In Burgundy in 1970, for example, a dozen growers in Gevrey-Chambertin might have sold their grapes to a négociant who blended them into a single wine. Now, those dozen growers are all making their own Gevrey-Chambertins, all in their own individual styles.

In Champagne, instead of 10 or 15 big houses, each with a house style often described as light-, medium- or full-bodied, hundreds of growers are now making and selling idiosyncratic Champagnes.

Analogous expansions have occurred throughout historic wine regions, including those that nobody had heard of a few decades ago. Then add all the new regions that have started making or selling wines. A would-be connoisseur today has vastly more homework to do than in 1970.

One result is a tension in the wine industry between those who celebrate the expansion in choices and others who would prefer to simplify things by eliminating much of the esoterica.

On the side of simple are marketers, bureaucrats and others who view wine primarily in terms of sales. Their rationale is easy to understand. Complexity confuses people, they believe. It makes them fearful and threatens to drive them away from wine into the arms of something like hard seltzers or canned Negronis, with which nobody fears making a mistake or appearing ignorant.

I understand the feeling. Many people don’t want to study wine, or even think much about it. Yet, much of the beauty, depth and mystique of wine comes from the vast possibilities it offers, each subtly different and distinctive.

The expanded spectrum of wine is an effort to have it both ways, to preserve the complexities while trying to simplify the process of choosing a bottle. Yes, we’ve gotten to a time where “red or white” is no longer sufficient. Now, consumers might be presented with a half-dozen stylistic options rather than hundreds of bottles of indeterminate type.

The New Spectrum of Wine

Here is a brief primer to help navigate these terms if you see them in a store or restaurant.

Transparent vs. Golden Whites

Transparent whites generally will have been aged in steel tanks or other containers meant to protect against contact with air. They tend to be fresh, fruity and immediate. Golden whites, meaning whites with a darker hue, would most likely have been aged in oak, which might enrich the texture and complexity of a wine without necessarily making it taste oaky, though that might be an unfortunate side effect. It might also indicate an older white or one that has been intentionally exposed to air, which would also change the flavor and texture. Wines in this style are oxidative rather than oxidized, which is a flaw.

Orange or Skin-Contact Wines

These are essentially whites that have been produced using techniques for making reds. Instead of whisking the fresh grape juice off the pigment-bearing skins, as you would a conventional white, the juice macerates with the skins, drawing out color and perhaps tannins. The longer the maceration, the darker and more tannic the orange wine will become. Those wines that have mingled a few days or maybe up to two weeks will be relatively pale. Longer soaking, which might be many months, will result in an amber-colored wine.

Pale and Dark Rosés

Easy to visualize, but are their differences meaningful? A rosé is essentially the inverse of an orange wine, a red made using the techniques for producing whites. The longer the juice is macerated the darker the wine becomes, particularly if the base grape is thicker skinned and darker hued. Paler rosés, like typical examples from Provence, tend to be easygoing, light and fresh, while darker versions, like Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, may be savory, richer and fuller. But not always! Color offers clues but not answers. When in doubt, ask a sommelier.

Light vs. Dark Reds

Not a particularly helpful designation as color in red wines can mean little. The assumption is that the darker the color the denser and more tannic the wine, but it’s not true. A traditionally made Barolo is pale red, yet tannic and long-lived while any number of dark reds will be fresh and easy. Far more useful are largely self-explanatory designations like light-, medium- or heavy-bodied, which describe weight and body. One exception with color: Young reds will be brighter while well-aged wines will seem duller and paler around the edges. But unless you are blind tasting, you won’t need to guess the age by the color.

Sparkling Wines

The pét-nat, traditional method and tank nomenclature refer to how the wines were made. Pét-nat stands for pétillant-naturel, or ancestral method, in which wine completes its fermentation in the bottle, trapping carbon dioxide, which produces bubbles. It’s both the oldest method and newly fashionable, and produces somewhat simple wines that can be fresh and delicious. Traditional method refers to Champagne-style sparklers, in which a completed wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. These wines have the potential to age and become complex, but it’s not built in. Last is the tank method, used for inexpensive sparkling wines produced in quantity, like Prosecco. They can be fresh and likable. None of these methods should be considered a badge of quality.

Chillable Reds and Glou Glou

Not all reds should be served cold. Those that are designated chillable tend to be the least tannic reds, ones that are easygoing, refreshing and somewhat simple. Glou Glou is an onomatopoeic French phrase for thirst-quenching wines that you can drink in quantity, the sort that take well to chill, if desired.

Oceanic vs. Mountain Whites

Many sommeliers have tried to improve on traditional geographical divisions in wine lists. Some have divided lists by weight, as in light-, medium- and full-bodied, or by style, say, fresh and fruity vs. rich and powerful. A few have used the terrain where the grapes were grown, near an ocean or at higher elevations. These designations have little use beyond entertaining the creators, as Etna whites from Sicily, for example, have little in common with Sonoma Coast chardonnays.

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