Why Is Red Wine Red? And What About Allergies?

By / Magazine / August 2nd, 2011 / 1

Why are red wines red?

I love this kind of question. On the surface it seems completely idiotic to ask it, but guess what, I hear it all the time because a lot of people just aren’t sure. Why are red wines red? And better yet, why are white wines white? And, since we’re tossing around queries that appear obvious, why am I so amazing? It would take this whole issue to answer that last one, but the mystery of the first two is easy to explain.

Red wines don’t get their pigment from the pulp of the grape (at least not much) or by blending different coloured wines together; it comes from … wait for it … the skins of the grapes. Though the amount of time the skins stay in contact with the juice can vary depending on the winemaker and style of vino being made; suffice it to say that the longer a wine’s juice is in contact with the skins, the deeper and richer its hue becomes. The darker the skins, the heavier the colour extraction.

White wine production generally excludes skin contact so the juice flows free of colour except for what little the wine does pick up from the pulp or possibly from being aged in oak barrels. Believe it or not (I love saying that) many so-called “white” wines (they’re really more light green to yellow) are made from grapes with red (actually more like purple) skins. Too long with the juice and they’re on their way to a watery-looking rosé.

A rosé is the halfway point between red and white. Most modern versions get their pink colour from limited red grape skin on juice exposure (rather than a blend of white and red wines). The winemaker lets things soak just long enough to suck out some colour from the skins without going all the way to the red side. 

I’m allergic to sulphur. Are there any wines I can drink?

Are you really? Really? Look, while I’m no doctor (I just tell that to girls in bars) in all my years on the booze beat I’ve never met anyone who could actually confirm that their problem with wine was because they had an aversion to sulphur.

Now before the League of Sulphur Sufferers starts with the emails; I’ll acknowledge that it’s probably true that if something exists on this Earth there’s more than likely someone out there who’s allergic to it. Maybe I just haven’t met the right kind of people yet.

Here’s a quick non-professional diagnosis: If you can drink any wine at all without getting a headache or whatever ailment reveals itself after a few sips than it’s unlikely you’re allergic to sulphur — it’s in almost all of them. (Those few that “claim” to be sulphur free are few and far between).

Though used sparingly during the winemaking process (including organic wine production) sulphur appears naturally in wine. If you’re allergic you shouldn’t be able to drink any vino at all. Poor you.

I blame the warning labels on some international wines for getting the anti-sulphur bandwagon rolling. Though not required by Canadian law, countries like Australia require their wine panels carry them primarily to tip off asthmatics (who can have violent reactions to sulphur dioxide).

Since you didn’t say what your particular tipple trouble was, I’ll assume it’s a headache or an issue with your sinus cavity — the typical complaint. If you can drink white wine but not red, odds are tannin or histamine is the culprit — both are plentiful in red wines.

The true question isn’t what wine you should drink; it’s what’s really wrong with you. Get your doctor to confirm your allergy assumption and hope you’re wrong about the sulphur diagnosis.


Fresh, funny and down-to-earth, Peter Rockwell is the everyman's wine writer. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia he's worked in the liquor industry for over 30 years and has written about wine, spirits & beer since graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in 1986. His reviews and feature articles have been published in Tidings, Vines, Occasions, Where and on Alliant.net to name a few; he has been a weekly on-air wine feature columnist for both CBC-TV and Global Television and his wine column 'Liquid Assets' appeared weekly in two of Nova Scotia's daily newspapers, 'The Halifax Daily News' and 'The Cape Breton Post.' Today Peter's irreverent answer man column 'Bon Vivant' appears each month in Tidings Magazine and his weekly 'Liquid Assets' column is published across Canada in editions of the METRO newspaper. When not drinking at home, and at work, Peter travels the globe looking for something to fill his glass and put into words.

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