Red wine vs. White wine: What IS the difference?

We’ve talked a lot about different wines and what you can find here in the San Luis Obispo wine region. What we haven’t talked about is what each of these wines is and what the difference is between them.

Let’s start at the very root of it all: red wine versus white wine. What’s the difference? This might seem like too basic a question, but learning the fundamentals is always key.

Red wine is, quite obviously, red. This is a result of the pigmentation of the skin on the grapes used to make it. This is usually a red-purple color, deep purple, or even blue.

“The skins are in contact with the grape’s juice during the fermentation process, allowing the dispersion of both color and tannins. The individual wine’s particular red hue depends on the grape type used in the process and the length of time the skin’s pigmentation is in contact with juice,” said wine industry professional Stacy Slinkard in an article for

No two wines are alike and even the varietals will vary in flavor from year to year. For example, a 2007 pinot noir will taste differently than a 2002 pinot noir even if they’re from the same vineyard and winery. While the ever-changing nature of wine is the essence of the enjoyment for many wine drinkers, this makes it difficult to really describe the “flavor” of red wine. Instead, red wines are described as:

  • “light bodied,”
  • “medium bodied,” or
  • “full-bodied,”

Each of these classifications describes the wine’s feel (light like water, heavy like milk, or something in between). Beginning wine drinkers usually enjoy the more light-bodied red wines; medium- and full-bodied wines tend to be a harsher flavor and take a little “getting used to.”

There are about 50 main red wine varietals in the world, also according to Slinkard. The ones the San Luis Obispo region is known for include (but are not limited to):

Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo produces a Syrah and its own red blend titled Mustang Red, which is “a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah and Tempranillo, with a little bit of Petite Sirah” according to the Cal Poly Wine website.

(Click to enlarge photo)

(Click to enlarge photo)

Red wine is often believed to be healthier than white wine. According to Allison Ford in an article for, red wine is known for being healthy because it contains antioxidants even stronger than vitamins C and E. Among the long list of these antioxidants is one called resveratrol. Ford writes, “red wine contains resveratrol, a chemical that has shown remarkable promise in protecting the heart and brain from damage. . . [the] Grenache grape is known for producing some of the greatest amounts of resveratrol of any varietal.”

White wine, which is actually more of a gold color, is typically made from grapes with green, gold, or green-yellow colored skin. Some types (such as some champagnes, a sparkling form of white wine) are made from red grapes using only the grapes and none of the skin attached.

White wines do not have the same classification system as red wines, but it still stands that no two wines are alike. As we learned from my conversation with Jean-Pierre Wolff, a dry-farmed chardonnay will be much different from one consistently watered; each winemaker puts his own touch on the wine he makes.

According to Slinkard in an article on white wine for, white wines “are more refreshing, lighter in both style and taste than the majority of their red wine counterparts, making them ideal for spring and summer occasions.”

There are only about eight main white wine varietals. Some of the ones you will encounter in the San Luis Obispo region include (but, as before, are not limited to):

Cal Poly also produces a Chardonnay and its own white blend called Mustang White, which is “a blend of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris exhibiting the minerality and crispness of a European-style wine,” according to the Cal Poly Wine website.

(Click to enlarge photo)

(Click to enlarge photo)

Many studies have shown that white wine has its own list of health benefits:

  • White wine typically contains fewer calories (with the exception of sweet wines with higher sugar content) than red.
  • According to Ford, “[r]ed wine, more than any other alcoholic beverage, is a known trigger for many migraine sufferers, and even healthy people often avoid it and its side effects, which can sometimes occur after as little as one glass. . . White wine has no such side effects. White wine also has none of the known medication interactions that red wine does.”
  • The same benefits that have been found for alcohol in general (in moderation, of course) According to Ford, these include increased absorption of other antioxidants, a higher level of LDL cholesterol (that’s the good kind), thinner blood which prevents heart clots and promotes relaxation, helping to avert stress-induced illnesses.
“I like white because of the taste,” said Cal Poly Recreation junior Tiffany Pricer.
“[I prefer] red ’cause that’s when I get my grown man on,” said Cal Poly History junior Jose Rodriguez.
So let’s recap. The main differences between red wine and white wine are their color, the nature of their flavor, the different health benefits they each offer and, like every single wine, the grapes used to make them. For the most part, each wine drinker has his or her own preference to either red or white wine and when it comes down to it, preference is what makes the difference to each person. But be careful not to get stuck on your preference–remember that wine changes constantly and so do your taste buds!

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