Does White Wine Really Exist...

Scientists in Italy are out with a new report claiming that white wine doesn’t exist. Really! Here’s the heart of the claim, as reported by New Scientist:

Most sources say that “what distinguishes red from white is that white wine grapes don’t have anthocyanins,” says Panagiotis Arapitsas of Italy’s Edmund Mach Foundation. His team used mass spectrometry to analyse the skins of grapes from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling grapes, which are used in the production of white wine. They found these white grapes did contain anthocyanins, although in concentrations several thousand times smaller than in red grape varieties such as Merlot.

Anthocyanins, the molecules in question, are well known to winemakers. Here’s an excerpt from the lengthy science-heavy entry in The Oxford Companion To Wine:

The particular anthocyanins found in grapes are limited in number, with mixtures of pigment molecules varying from species to species and from grape variety to grape variety.

One important operation during the fermentation of most red wines, therefore, is to transfer the anthocyanin pigments from the skin cells to the wine. Colour transfer is achieved by keeping the skins adequately mixed with the fermenting wine.

With that brief science lesson under our belts, let’s return to Dr. Arapitsas:

Arapitsas says this shines light on one of wine-making’s oldest curiosities – why white-wine producers occasionally end up with a wine that is a bit pink. “Sometimes there were producers of white wines who collected white grapes and ended up with a slightly rosé wine,” he says. “Now they have some information about why that happened.”

Without disrespecting Arapitsas’ work, the fact that white wine varieties turn out to contain anthocyanins in concentrations several thousand times lower than in red wine varieties doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as white wine. Wine varieties are all related. Cabernet Sauvignon’s parents, for example, are Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. The close relation and appearance of many varieties often makes it difficult to identify particular grapes in the vineyard, though DNA testing has cleared up many of these mysteries in recent years. The many varied grape varieties we drink all belong to the same species, Vitis vinifera (of course grapes from other species are occasionally used to make wine, like Norton, which belongs to Vitis aestivalis, and Concord which belongs to Vitis labrusca).

Although the presence of anthocyanins is certainly interesting, it shouldn’t be too surprising given all we know, along with the slightly pink, white-wine episodes that Arapitsas mentioned. So is there no such thing as white wine? No more than claiming that there’s no such thing as red wine.

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