Made from different grape varieties, red and white wines represent the two significant types of one popular drink. Which one is better is a frequent subject of controversy among wine enthusiasts. But the choice of red wine vs. white wine is a matter of your personal preferences. Both types of wine derive their unique characteristics from the grape varietals used in production primarily; the winemaking techniques also matter.

So, what are the key differences between red and white wine grapes? Read this article to discover what sets these two groups of grape varietals apart. After outlining the differences, we’ll examine the most popular grapes used to produce red and white wines.

Image by Thomas from Pixabay

Red vs. white wine grapes

Grape characteristics

The first and most apparent difference between red and white wine grapes is their color. Red wine grapes can be red or black, with high anthocyanin concentration in their skins. White wine grapes are typically yellow or green, but it’s not always the case. 

In some instances, black and red grapes can produce white wines. The reason for this is differences in the wine-making process: winemakers don’t use grape skins and seeds during the fermentation process in white wine production. As the grape skin doesn’t interact with the grape juice, anthocyanins won’t color future wine in shades of red. In red wine production, the skins, seeds, and stems are all in contact with the grape juice during the fermentation. As a result, the wine acquires a red color.

Along with anthocyanins, skins, seeds, and leaves of red grapes contain such phenolic compounds as tannins. Tannins are much higher in red wine grapes, which explains the drying sensation you may feel on the back of your tongue when drinking wine. White grapes also contain these phenolic compounds, although their content is much lower than red varietals.

Harvest time

The next difference between red vs. white wine grape varietals is harvest time. As grapes ripen at different rates, winemakers cut them from the vines at different times. 

Typically, white wine grapes are harvested earlier than red wine grapes to ensure the desired acidity in wine. The first grapes to be picked are sparkling wine grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, followed by white wine grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and others. 

Now, what about red and black grapes used to produce white wines? As a rule, the harvest time will be the same for most white wine grapes. An exception, though: winemakers will harvest white wine grapes later to make dessert or late-harvest wines.

Red wine grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petite Sirah are often picked in late October when they are ripe enough and have sufficient phenol and sugar levels.

Read more about the harvest season here.

Image by Jonathan Nenemanm from Pexels

Red vs. white wine production 

Wine producers make red and white wines differently, with different grape parts used in fermentation. When making red wines of red or black grapes, the skins, seeds, and stems all participate in the fermentation process started by natural yeast. In certain cases, winemakers add yeast to the juice to run the process in a controlled manner. As a result, the fermented grape juice derives color, tannins, and flavors from the grape skins and seeds (this process is known as maceration). 

When producing white wines from red or black grapes, winemakers remove the grape skin and seeds to ensure a lighter color of the resulting wine (the style known as Blanc de Noir). With the skins removed, white grapes go to press. In red wine production, pressing occurs after fermentation.

The fermentation temperature will differ for red and white wine production: 68°F-80°F for red wines and 57-65ºF for white wines.

Aging techniques 

It is more common to age red wines in oak barrels than white wines. Oak aging adds complexity to the wine’s flavor profile, adding nutty, vanilla, and caramel notes to the bouquet. Light-bodied reds can be an exception, though. Designed for early drinking, light wines like Cabernet Franc, Grenache, and Gamay are aged in stainless steel tanks.

With white wines, using stainless steel vats is more common for aging. By preventing exposure to oxygen, steel helps preserve the grape’s natural floral and fruity flavor. Still, certain white wine grape varieties like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc are oak-friendly despite being typically aged in stainless steel.

Flavor profiles of wines

When it comes to drinking wine, flavors and aromas matter. While seasoned wine drinkers don’t want to generalize what this or that drink tastes like, we can still highlight some major distinctions between red wine vs. white wine. 

The primary notes of red wines typically include dark fruit and berries like plum, dark currant, blackberry, raspberry, and strawberry. White wines tend to have fruity notes of citrus, apple, pear, or stone fruit and floral flavors. So, to sum up: red wines tend to be berry-flavored, while white wines typically display floral and citrusy flavors and aromas.

Along with these natural flavor characteristics derived from the grapes primarily, factors like winemaking techniques also determine the flavor profile of the wine. Unoaked light-bodied reds are crisp and refreshing, with distinct strawberry, cherry, and raspberry notes on the palate. Full-bodied red wines have rich blackberry, black currant, and blueberry flavors and may derive vanilla, baking spices, or coconut notes from oak aging.

Light-bodied whites are aromatic and refreshing, with citrus, stone fruit, apple, or pineapple notes on the palate. Richer whites aged in oak and through malolactic fermentation have a more buttery or creamy structure and still preserve their fruit tang.

Aging potential of wines

While it’s difficult to generalize, there are some commonly accepted distinctions regarding the aging potential of red vs. white wines. That is, unoaked whites are best when drunk within two years, and oaked whites — when consumed within five years. White wine varieties with the greatest aging potential (up to 10 years) include Chardonnay, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, and fortified dessert versions of Riesling.

As for red wines, they are good when drunk within five years. However, specific red varieties can have a more significant aging potential — of up to 20 years. Red wine varieties that age well are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, and Tempranillo are red wine varieties that age well.

The key reason for the weaker aging potential of white wines compared to their red counterparts is a lower level of tannins. In greater amounts, these phenolic compounds in red wines contribute to the wine’s age-worthiness.

Want to learn more about red vs. white wine differences? Then check this article.

Red wine vs. white wine: the best varieties to try

Now that you know the differences between grapes used in white and red wine production, let’s outline some noteworthy varieties in each group. Knowing the varietal specifics and what to expect from red wine vs. white wine will help you stock your wine collection based on your taste.

Image by Maria Orlova from Pexels

The most popular red wine grape varieties. 

If you enjoy drinking red wine, below is the Mill Keeper’s list of the best reds for you to try.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon, a cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, is a noble variety grape of California and one of the state’s most planted red wine grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes produce full-bodied wines with intense flavors and aromas of black currant, cherry, and cedar. Due to their high tannin content, Cabs have excellent aging potential and only taste better with years. Cabernet Sauvignon makes perfect pairings with fatty meats.


Merlot is also a noble red grape and one of the most popular grapes in California. Merlot wines are rich and full-bodied, with fruity flavors and aromas like plum and cherry, medium acidity, and velvety tannins. If you have red meat for dinner, you can’t go wrong pairing it with Merlot.

Pinot Noir

Small and delicate Pinot Noir grapes require careful vine management and can be challenging to grow. However, this noble grape variety produces sought-after light-bodied red Pinot Noir wines and sparkling wines when blended with Chardonnay. Single-varietal Pinot Noir wines are medium-bodied reds with low tannin content and medium to high acidity. The primary flavors displayed by Pinot Noir wines are fruity notes like plum, cherry, and raspberry and floral aromas like rose and hibiscus.


Malbec grapes produce rich deep colored wines with moderate acidity. Wine drinkers love Malbec wines for jammy fruit flavors like plum, cherry, and raspberry combined with savory notes of sweet tobacco, cocoa, and black pepper. Red meat dishes, game meats, and blue cheese are perfect Malbec food pairings.


Syrah (also known as Shiraz in South Africa and Australia) is a noble grape variety. Syrah grapes are small and thick-skinned. As a result, the wines of Syrah grapes are full-bodied, with fruity flavors like plum and blueberry and distinctive spicy notes — green pepper, black pepper, and tobacco. 

As for great food pairings for Syrah, hearty dishes like beef stews, Lamb Shawarma, and smoked meats will bring out the wine’s fruity notes.


Zinfandel is a black grape variety producing red wines with fruity and spicy notes. Zinfandel’s primary flavors include raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, and blueberry; the secondary aromas are black pepper, licorice, star anise, and black cardamom. With oak aging, Zinfandels acquire notes of vanilla, coconut, mocha, clove, cinnamon, and tobacco.

Along with red wines, Zinfandel grapes produce White Zinfandel — a popular sweet rose wine.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

The most popular white wine grape varieties 

Now, here is the list of the best wine names for white wine lovers.


Chardonnay is a versatile grape variety allowing winemakers to shape the tasting profile of the future wine as they wish. Depending on the winemaking techniques applied, Chardonnay wines can be light-bodied and crisp with a bright acidity or full-bodied with a creamy texture.

Chardonnay’s flavors naturally derived from grapes are citrus, green apple, fig, and pineapple. Chardonnays aged in stainless steel vats have crisp consistency and taste refreshing. When aged in oak, Chardonnay wine becomes creamy or buttery and gains notes of vanilla and baking spices.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is a noble white grape variety producing wines with intense fruity and herbal flavors and aromas. Sauvignon Blanc wines are typically dry, light to medium-bodied, and high-acid. The primary flavors in this aromatic white wine are grapefruit, peach, passion fruit, white peach, and gooseberry. 

A good idea is to pair white wine like Sauvignon Blanc with green vegetables, fish, white meat like chicken, and other dishes served with herb-driven sauces. 

Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio 

Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio is a grape variety with pinkish grape skin used to produce white, rose, and even orange wine. Wines made of Pinot Gris are light or medium-bodied, with fruity and citrus flavors and zesty acidity.

Light dishes like seafood, white meat, or vegetables for dinner will pair perfectly with a glass of Pinot Gris.


Riesling is a white wine grape variety widely planted across Napa Valley and other California wine counties. This aromatic grape produces high-acid wines with fruity flavors and mineral overtones. The ripeness of grapes used to make Riesling wine determines the primary flavors of the drink in your wine glass. Wines made of less ripe grapes tend to display lime notes, while drinks made of more ripe grapes offer flavors of nectarine or pineapple.

Rieslings may come in different wine styles — from sweet to off-dry. Off-dry Rieslings make a great pairing with spicy food as their slightly sweet taste balances out the “heat” of the dish.

Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is notable for its versatility. This grape variety can produce wines in different styles, including dry, sweet, and sparkling. When used to make blends, Chenin Blanc can balance out the acidity in off-dry wines with its fruity notes like apple, melon, and peach.

Just like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc performs well in oak. Oaked Chenin Blanc versions often display notes of nutmeg, buttered popcorn, baked apple, or meringue.

Semillon is a high-yielding white wine grape variety and is relatively easy to grow. Winemakers use Semillon grapes to produce single-varietal wines or mix them with Sauvignon Blanc grapes to make a blend.

California Semillon is a medium-bodied dry white wine with bright acidity. The primary tasting notes in Semillon wines are apple, peach, lemon, and honey. Semillons aged in oak barrels take on a richer, Chardonnay-like profile. 


Viognier is also a high-yielding grape variety producing single-varietal wines and blends in various wine styles, including dry, sweet, or late-harvest.

Single-varietal Viognier wines are medium to full-bodied, medium-acid, and dry on the palate. Viogniers display fruity flavors of peach, mango, and apricot and floral aromas like jasmine, violet, rose, and narcissus. Oaked versions of Viognier obtain a rich, creamy texture with flavors of vanilla and baking spices.

Check this post for a more comprehensive guide on red and white wine grapes planted in California.

Image by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Red wine vs. white wine: who’s the winner?

Have you already decided on the winner in the red wine vs. white wine battle? On the whole, it’s okay to rely only on your personal preferences when choosing between white and red wine. We hope our guide will shed light on what to expect from red and white wine varieties so you can pick up the best bottle for any occasion.