Wine Isn’t Just Red, White or Pink

Today, most of us can comprehend that something as important as gender exists on a broad spectrum. Why is it so hard to do the same with wine? Jon Bonné on seeing the wine world beyond red or white, and embracing the rainbow.

Many years ago, a wise man frog once sang: “Rainbows have nothing to hide.” I imagine that’s why they’re the ultimate metaphor. Quite literally, they show us all their stripes.

That has surely helped rainbows find their way into more than a few folk sayings, including one recent and popular dietary trope: “Eat the rainbow.” Trite, perhaps, but with some useful advice: It’s important to consume food—actual food, not food products—from the full range of colors: red apples, orange carrots, green broccoli and so on.

And yet, while we’re encouraged all the time to think about diversity when it comes to the way we eat, when it comes to wine—hardly ever. Wine is all about simplistic, single-choice slogans. Refresh yourself with riesling. Pair those ribs with zinfandel.

There’s logic behind such aphorisms. They hint at the possibility of a neat shorthand for wine and they reassure the large portion of the population that (rosé love aside) we still live in a binary wine world: red or white?

But it is so much more complex. Today, most of us can comprehend that something as important as gender exists on a broad spectrum. Why is it so hard to do the same with wine?

Mostly, this is the result of wine’s eternal foe—fear—raising its head once again. Do you drink chardonnay because it’s so utterly superior? Or do you choose chardonnay because it is a known? (Hence the trap of chardonnay: More than any other, it’s a grape made in a nearly infinite range of styles. Liking chardonnay is like liking chicken.) These narrow perspectives were useful maybe 30 years ago, for a generation of wine drinkers who were coming of age at a time when wine was still mysterious. Over and over again, we have seen the results of that desperate desire to hand out easy wine answers—answers that make us part of the crowd but ultimately do nothing, aside from depriving us of the broader possibilities.

But there’s a different way: Drink the rainbow.

I grant that’s not the easiest thing to do. The world around us still likes to place wine into buckets. Wine lists need a taxonomy, for instance, so there’s always white and red and sparkling, although I love the occasional efforts to find a different prism, like at Pabu in San Francisco, where the usual categories are amended by “umami wine”—not necessarily orange, but reflecting an unusual degree of savoriness and intensity (like sherry, some Jura wine and so on). That helps get us closer to incorporating things that don’t fit neatly into the narrow-think boxes, like sherry or pétillant naturel. (Even a well-established spot like Gramercy Tavern now bothers to make space for pét-nat.) It serves a purpose that an organizing principle like geography—wonderful if you know it, frustrating if you don’t—simply can’t.

Wine lists are, in the end, a means of organizing the world, and the fact that a new diversity of formats has appeared is a testament to the fact that we’re moving toward a world that grabs from the full pile of color swatches, rather than just falling into one simple shade. It’s no different than how menus now reflect our evolution beyond appetizer + main to a more pixelated way of eating.

But how, exactly, does one go about—with apologies to Iggy Azalea—tasting the full rainbow?

The easiest way to start is by blowing up each of those overly simple buckets: white, red and now pink. We don’t have to abandon them entirely, but at the same time, each of those contains a full spectrum. White isn’t just white. It’s green (vinho verde, riesling, young sémillon) and lemon (albariño, falanghina) and golden (roussanne, riper chardonnay). Not long ago, it was OK to talk about white wine as being just a question of basic flavors and acidity. But now we understand that white wine carries forward so much of the character of its base grapes, including the texture of the pulp and the tannins in the skins.

Wine Rainbow

That points us toward orange wine, which is complicated in its way—think of it as essentially the inverse of rosé: white grapes made as though they were red, instead of red grapes made as though they were white—but is also the one that makes a fine case for that wine rainbow. A common misinterpretation is that the color comes from oxidation. As often as not, the color comes from the grape skins, as it would for red wine. So while “orange” is a convenient shorthand, it’s also an imprecise one; a skin-fermented wine doesn’t have to be orange at all. A lightly pigmented grape like rkatsiteli could yield a pale wine even after being soaked for weeks, while a pinkish grape like gewürztraminer yields richly hued wines after just a few days.

Red wine, too, has long been ripe for misunderstanding, perhaps even more so because darkness and weight was, for a time, associated with a sort of virility that the red-wine drinker intended to telegraph. But red doesn’t have to be that way, in the same way that it’s silly to think of white as insubstantial. Red has its own brilliant spectrum: It can be ruby (grignolino, trousseau) or garnet (pinot noir) or violet (syrah) all the way to inky near-black (corvina, by way of Amarone). And color doesn’t equal intensity; pale grenache can pack more punch than an inky-but-light grape like lacrima di Morro d’Alba.

Wine Rainbow

For that matter, while I’m eternally grateful that pink is now part of the canon, rosé has its own beautiful range of diversity, one often lost amidst the frenzy. It’s a wine that can be made of countless different grapes, in endless shades. And again, that color simply nods to the base material and the winemaking, not innate weight or flavor. A bright-salmon rosé from Tavel might have more weight and body than a dark-blush syrah rosé from California or, for that matter, even a light red, like schiava from Alto Adige.

And how do you even begin to account for a grape like pinot grigio? In its natural state, it’s between white and red (hence “grigio,” or grey) and can be made to taste like water (what usually passes for pinot grigio) or like a ripe, apple-scented white (Alsatian pinot gris). It can even show red fruit flavors and a color that is nearly copper (the ramato style of Friuli).

So, keep poking at the simple boxes we’ve often been told to put wine into. Because Kermit actually had it right all along: Rainbows may be complex in their makeup, but in the end, they have nothing to hide. It’s not just that there is honesty in their complexity; it’s that complexity is the very essence of what makes wine today so interesting. Drinking the rainbow is simply the most truthful way to embrace it.

Tagged: Jon Bonne, wine