As a fun intro note, I was walking by Fine Wine Brokers in Chicago last year, and at the exact time I was studying wine color in class, they had this sign out front. Serendipitous!
White wines will range in color from anywhere from a yellowy green to a yellowy brown color. I’d say most white wines you find on your grocery store shelf will be somewhere close to the color of pale straw (deeper to paler, depending on varietal, oak usage, and other winemaking techniques.) Very young white wines will have a more greenish tinge, whereas older whites will darken in color, with some dessert wines and Madeiras having a true brown color (Madeiras undergo a heating process that essentially bakes them.)
Here’s sort of a visual of the range of white wine colors you can expect (though remember these colors are definitely more saturated and exaggerated than what you’d find in your glass.)
Dessert and sweet wines will have a gold color and this is fine. They can age 5+ years without necessarily passing their peak. Some can age 20+ years!
If you open a young bottle of white wine and it looks brown, this could mean it got accidentally baked in transit somewhere- likely in a hot vehicle… Oops.
Red wines similarly have a varying range of color based on age. The more purple the wine, the younger it is. Reds that are less than 2 years old will often have this purpley hue. From about 2-4 years old, the wine will take on a nice dark ruby red color. This is the sign of a mature wine. Good and drinkable! The majority of the wine you find on the grocery store shelf is best consumed in this window. (Again, remember that there is room for variance here depending on varietal, so this is a generalization.)
Older wines will take on a brick red or reddish brown appearance, as our friends at the wine shop pointed out above. For many fine wines, this 5-10 year window of brick red coloring is ideal. And for a very select few (those rarities that sell for small fortunes at auction,) they may even take on a deep, rich, fully brown color.
Again, my color chart here is exaggerated, but gives you an idea of the range.
Now, go forth! Impress your friends with your super-sleuth skills!
Did you know?
In blind tastings, wines are often presented under dim lighting in black glasses. This is because judges can sometimes make accidental educated assumptions about a wine based on its color, before they even take a sip... Sneaky!