Red Wine vs White Wine: 10 Key Differences

There are some clear differences between red wine vs white wine. Most people have a preference between the two, but not everyone knows what the differences actually are (except for the obvious color differences). Red wine and white wine are different from the start when they are on the vine. The differences continue in the wine making process and as you would imagine, then in the flavor profiles as well.

Knowing the key differences between red wine and white wine will help you make informed decisions with wine and food pairing, wine storage, and drinking wine for health benefits. Read on to get the low down on all differences between red wine and white wine.

1. How Red Wine vs White Wine is Made

One of the first things we need to talk about when listing differences between red wine and white wine, is the very beginning – how they are made, and the differences in the processes of making the two.

Since the process of making wine is definitely too complex to be described in one section of a blog post, I’m just going to list some main steps so I can highlight the differences between making red wine vs white wine.

Growing Grapes

Growing grapes is the start of the winemaking process, and it’s the same for all types of wines and grapes – farmers grow, tame, trellis, and trail the vines.

Harvesting

The next step, which is also the same for all sorts of wines, is harvesting.

When harvesting, farmers cut the grapes from the vines, put them in baskets, and transfer them to wineries. White grapes may be harvested earlier in order to preserve acid levels whereas red grapes are left until they are both ripe in sugars and phenols.

Sorting

After harvesting the grapes – they need to be sorted.

That can happen in the vineyard by only cutting good healthy grapes or in the winery, and this step is also the same for all sorts of grapes.

Crushing 

The next step is to crush the grapes. The reason why this is done, is because fermentation (the next step) can only be done if the juice inside the grapes interacts with yeast – and the main way to start that is to crush the grapes to get to the juice.

Red Wine vs White Wine Fermentation

Now, we finally get to the part where the processes for making red and white wine start to be different!

In this step, red wine and white wine diverge on different paths.

Red grapes go through maceration, and white grapes go straight to the press.

The next two steps happen simultaneously.

Maceration

Maceration is the process in which the wine gets its color. 

The color of the wine comes from grape skin. The juice inside the grapes is clear, so any color you see in wine comes from its skin.

For red wine, skins are in contact with the juice throughout the fermentation process.

When grape juice begins to ferment, alcohol and heat rise, and extract the pigment out of the skin into the liquid.

Fermentation

Fermentation is the process in which the sugar in grapes converts to alcohol. This happens when the yeast begins to eat the sugar.

Pressing

This step is also different for white and red wine.

Pressing separates the skins and seeds from the juice.

With white grapes, pressing happens before fermentation.

With red wine pressing happens after the juice has already become wine.

So, white juice is pressed whereas red wine is pressed.

Wine press

Racking

Racking is a way of clarifying the wine.

Blending

In this part, the winemaker carefully decides how the wine will come together, and there’s a lot of chemistry involved. 

Ageing

Unoaked white wines need to be aged at least 4 month before they can be consumed, and red wines can take up to 2 years.

Filtering

Filtering is done to clear the wine of any small particles that are in it.

Bottling

This is the last step, and it’s pretty self-explanatory – wines are being bottled.

red wine vs white wine

2. Red Wine vs White Wine: Taste

How red wine and white wine taste depends on a few factors; the variety, the climate, and the winemaker. White wine is usually known to have a dry, crisp, and fruity flavors of citrus, apple, stone fruit, and flowers. Each variety is different though. White wines are usually lighter in body than red wines. Most white wines do not spend any time in oak barrels; those that do will be fuller bodied.

Red wine on the other hand tends to have a richer and fuller taste. Red wines have tannins which is the part of the wine that’s good for you but also imparts an astringency to the wine. Red wines have flavors of cherries, berries, herbs and spices. Most red wines spend some time in oak barrels which also adds vanilla, coconut, and baking spice notes to the wine.

3. Red Wine vs White Wine: Food Pairings

First of all, it goes without saying – drink what you like. If you only like white wine or you only like red wine, don’t feel like you need to drink the other one just because it’s said to go better with the food you’re eating.

But, if you like both, or at least you’re open to drinking both, let’s cover which wines pair with what food

To start, let’s list some general rules for knowing which wine to drink with what food (there are exceptions of course, but there are some general rules):

  • Heavy dishes go with heavy wines, light dishes go with light wines.
  • White meat – white wine, red meat – red wine.
  • White sauce – white wine, red sauce – red wine (don’t forget to think about sauces, since they heavily affect the taste of the dish, so they also affect the decision about which wine to pair with that dish).
  • The acid in wine neutralizes the acid in the dish, and makes them both better.
  • Spicy food goes with off-dry, fruity wines.
  • Wine should be sweeter than the food, especially with desserts.
  • Fatty dishes go with acidic wines because acid cuts through fat.
  • High acid white wines go with anything you’d squeeze lemon on, or put butter on. Spicy red wines go with anything you’d put BBQ sauce on, high acid red wines are perfect with tomato sauces.
  • Wines go well with foods that come from the same place as the grapes.

Want an in-depth understanding of wine and food pairing? Well, I wrote a whole eBook about it! Buy A Sommelier’s Secrets to Wine and Food Pairing here.

Now that we covered those general rules, let’s go over some examples of what foods pair well with white wine, and what foods pair well with red wine.

Which Foods Pair With White Wine?

You should pair white wine with:

  • Salads
  • Fish and seafood
  • Cream sauces
  • White meat such as chicken (unless it’s heavily coated in a red sauce)
  • Lemony dishes
  • Buttery dishes (with oak aged white wines)

Which Foods Pair With Red Wine?

You should pair red wine with:

  • Steak
  • Lamb
  • Red meat
  • Red sauces (tomato sauce),
  • BBQ sauce
  • White meat that’s heavily coated in a red sauce
red wine vs white wine ageing

4. Which Wine Ages Longer? Red Wine or White Wine

When it comes to ageing, there are definitely some differences between red wine vs white wine.

The question is: which wine ages longer?

There are definitely many exceptions, but generally speaking:

  • You should drink unoaked white wines within 2 years.
  • Drink oaked white wines within 5 years.
  • Drink most red wines within 5 years.
  • Special red wines can age for up to 20 years.

5. Serving Temperatures for Red Wine vs White Wine

RED WINE SHOULD NOT BE SERVED AT ROOM TEMPERATURE! Unless of course you live in an underground wine cellar. Red wines are almost always served too warm and white wines are almost always served too cold. Red wine should be served below room temperature at about 60F/15C degrees and white wines around 44F/7C degrees. Or, if you aren’t walking around with a thermometer, stick your red wines in the fridge for 30 minutes before serving and 2 hours before serving white wine.

6. Red Wine vs White Wine: Health Benefits

Depending on where you need a health boost will determine whether red wine or white wine is better for you. As I explained earlier in the post, red wine is fermented with the grape skin on, and white wine is fermented with the skin off and those skins make a big difference in the health benefits of wine.

While both wines have health benefits, red wines are known to have more, because most of the good stuff comes from the grape skin and seeds. Since red wine soaks with its skins, there’s a lot more of those properties in it.

Red wine skins have resveratrol, which is known to help with cholesterol levels, and prevent blood clots. So, red wine is actually good for your heart (if you drink it moderately).

White wine is shown to help control blood sugar levels and has less calories (more on that below) which may be more important to your personal health.

7. Red Wine vs White Wine: Calories

While red wine has higher amounts of some vitamins and minerals (as we mentioned above), it also has more calories.

So, it’s better for you in terms of health, but if you are being mindful of your caloric consumption, white wine is better. Fair warning, these are based on DRY wines, meaning, wines that have had most of the sugar fermented to alcohol. Wines that are off-dry or sweet will have way more calories.

Red wine has 125 calories per glass (5 ounces or 150ml), and white wine has 115 calories per glass (5 ounces or 150ml).

red wine glassware

8. Red Wine vs White Wine: What Stemware to Use

When it comes to choosing a glass for your wine, here are some differences between glasses for white wine and red wine.

White wine glasses have smaller bowls than red wine glasses, their walls are less curved, and they have narrower openings. The narrow opening helps trap the aromas of the wine. These are my go to white wine glasses.

The reason why red wine glasses wider bowls allow more air to come into contact with wine, which allows the flavors to open up more. These are my favorite red wine glasses.

White wine glasses have longer stems than red wine glasses, because that makes it easier to hold your glass without touching the bowl and therefore warming the wine with your hand’s warmth, because white wines should be served below room-temperature. 

If you’re looking for the perfect wine glass for both red and white wine, check out the wine glasses I use everyday. Or grab these set from Riedel with all the wine glasses you need.

9. Red Wine vs White Wine Alcohol

Generally speaking, white wine grapes are picked earlier than red wine grapes to preserve their acid levels. Therefore, grapes that are used to make red wine are more ripe and have more sugar in them than grapes used to make white wine. The higher the sugar content of the grapes at harvest, the higher potential alcohol a wine has.

So, generally speaking, red wine contains more alcohol content than white wine. That means you can drink more white wine before you get tipsy than if you drank red wine!

The average red wine has 3.1 grams of alcohol content per glass, and white wine has 2.9 grams per glass. All wine bottles are legally required to state the alcohol content or ABV, alcohol by volume. Wineries are given a bit of wiggle room though so it could be up to half a percentage more than stated.

woman with wine headache

10. Red Wine vs White: Wine Hangover 

It goes without saying, but the more alcohol you drink, the worse hangover you’ll have.

So, since red wines have higher amounts of alcohol in them than white wines, you’ll likely have a bigger hangover when you drink red wine.

Also, the darker the wine, the more congeners it has, and will make you feel worse. So, again, you’re likely to have a bigger hangover if you drink red wine.

If you get headaches from wine no matter how little you drink, read this article to find the source of your wine headache.

Did I miss anything? What other differences do you notice between red wine and white wine?

Let me know in the comments. Bonus points if you tell me which you prefer; red wine vs white wine.

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