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Are red wines more “serious” than white wines?



“To be recognized by journalists, to be famous, you have to produce red.” That’s from Aurélie Bertin Taillaud, the proprietor of a winery in Provence, Chateau St. Roseline, who was quoted in Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Wines of France, which I am enjoying as much as I did his previous books.

The quote arose during Lewin’s consideration of the wines of Provence, which is so famous for rosé. Apparently, producers there wish to be taken more seriously—Oz Clark once wrote that Provence “is better known for its nudist beaches and arts festivals than for its wines,” and if I were a winemaker and people were saying that sort of thing about my region, I’d be offended too. As a result, says Lewin, “Some [Provencal] producers are trying to move towards production of reds to make more impact.”

Impact. To be famous. To be recognized by journalists. Are we talking about wine, or about celebrity? A young starry-eyed actor arrives in Hollywood, broke but ambitious, and dreams of being famous, to have impact, to be recognized by journalists. That is the goal of Fame. Is wine any different?

Well, not really. For almost all of recorded Western history, some wines have been very famous, and the rich and powerful—themselves famous—coveted them. Julius Caesar desired his Falernian wine, which Wine Spectator once called “the cult wine” of its time. And yes, Falernian wine was red.

Two issues present themselves, more or less in this order: Why do so many think a wine needs to be red in order “to be famous,” and what is the role of “journalists” in creating this impact? With regard to the former question, I really don’t know the answer. We humans do tend to classify some things as “more serious” than others. For instance, we regard paintings, of the kind that hang in museums, as more serious than, say, comic book drawings (although I know people who would disagree with that statement). To play the old word association game, I bet if you said to the next ten people you run into, “Picture a glass of wine in your head,” and then asked them what color the wine was, it would be red. Strange, isn’t it? And yet, there it is: “To be recognized by journalists, to be famous, you have to produce red.”

And what of journalists? Winemakers always have aspired to fame because the more famous their wine is, the more money they can charge for it. It was no different in Falernian’s time than it is today. The Bordelais excelled at this sort of P.R. 400 years ago. There were no journalists back then, but there were gatekeepers whose recommendations could make or break a wine’s reputation; and what is a modern wine journalist, if not a gatekeeper?

Nor is there anything particularly gauche about a winemaker who desires “to be recognized by journalists.” It sounds tacky, but it really isn’t, although in practice the pursuit of publicity can be tasteless if done with too much naked ambition.

It’s odd, though, that red wine should define “serious” wine since we know that there are lots of extremely serious white wines, including stickies. So, as I often do when I’m puzzled about something, I turned to my Facebook friends and asked them, “Is red wine more serious than white wine?” And as is always the case, they provided the most amazing insights. Here are a couple of them.

Just horribly engrained bullshit.

A great German Riesling or aged (non premoxed) white Burg can be just as serious as any red wine.

While I love both, I think it takes a whole lot more skill to make a complex, compelling & complete white wine than it does to make a red. [Note: This was from a winemaker.]

[And yet this, from another winemaker]: At the risk of not being politically correct, hell yes. It takes more work in the vineyard to make sure the skins have the right flavors, leafing, shoot thinning, etc. You can’t crop reds the same as whites. You ferment with the skins, punch down or pump over, worry about the seeds and extraction. And end up with a wine that generally will age longer, possibly require long term cellaring, and require more effort in general to care for and serve appropriately.

Their structure is more complex, beginning with the tannins, off to the pigmentation and dyes, how they’re fermented, aged in oak (not much white is, not as much as the reds), stay in barrel aging longer.

The aging factor accounts for most of it, I think. Some red wines are rather ponderous so some probably stems from that. Bit of snobbery, too, I think.

Tannins and oak add complexity and secondary characteristics. Higher fruit concentration and alc add to the equation, but the components necessary that allow a wine to age and evolve are what make them ‘serious’.

Had a guy at one of my tastings say, “Enough with this wimpy white wine stuff” to which I responded, “I don’t know sir, pretty sure my Muscadet can kick your Merlot’s ass.”

And from the great Jeff Stai: “…where wines will not be judged by their contact with the skin, but by the complexity of their character…”

  1. Bob Henry says:

    When red wines can age for over a century and still be drinkable (matched by only a few Château d’Yquems and German Rieslings), that “immortality” bestows fame on the winemaker-producer.

    (Think about the 1986 Mouton — with its formidable tannins — that Robert Parker proclaims can live for a 100 years.)

    “… A young starry-eyed actor arrives in Hollywood, broke but ambitious, and dreams of being famous, to have impact, to be recognized by journalists. That is the goal of Fame. …”

    And — zut alors! — such a striving actor can actually achieve worldwide fame, and later launch a Provence wine venture with his (actress) wife: Brad Pitt and Miraval rosé.

  2. “[Harry] Waugh had a dry and subtle wit. He once reputedly declared that the first duty of wine is to be red, the second to be a Burgundy, …”


  3. I love this post Steve! As a winemaker, I have pondered this question extensively. There are so many amazing white wines out there however outside of Chardonnay and very sweet high end styles of German Rieslings (TBAs and such) I rarely find white wines extolled the way reds are. I would venture that there are far fewer 100 point white wines than there are reds although I have not done a study on it. This goes back to the question “What does a 100 point Riesling look like, or a Sauvignon Blanc, or Pinot Gris?” Is it even attainable? Are we holding the white wines to a higher standard than the reds thus they are lower scoring overall or does the industry just perceive reds to be better inherent quality regardless of color (Plus 5 points for being red?) Since I am now in the Finger Lakes, where whites, rose, and a lighter style of reds typically predominate, this is a question that has been on my mind to understand. Thanks for giving me something to ponder today!

  4. Bob Henry says:


    You write:

    “I would venture that there are far fewer 100 point white wines than there are reds although I have not done a study on it.”

    Here’s your insight — from a 1989 interview Robert Parker granted Wine Times (later to be renamed Wine Enthusiast) on white and red wine scoring.

    The key to Parker is whether “wines … have the ability to improve in the bottle.” If “yes,” then they get bonus points — taking them into the 90 points to 100 points section of his scoring scale.

    ~~ Bob

    PARKER: It’s a fairly methodical system. The wine gets up to 5 points on color, up to 15 on bouquet and aroma, and up to 20 points on flavor, harmony and length. And that gets you 40 points right there. And then the [balance of] 10 points are . . . simply awarded to wines that have the ability to improve in the bottle. This is sort of arbitrary and gets me into trouble.

    . . .

    WINE TIMES: Do you have a bias toward red wines? Why aren’t white wines getting as many scores in the upper 90s? Is it you or is it the wine?

    PARKER: Because of that 10-point cushion [awarded to wines that have the ability to improve in the bottle]. Points are assigned to the overall quality but also to the potential period of time that wine can provide pleasure. And white Burgundies today have a lifespan of, at most, a decade with rare exceptions. Most top red wines can last 15 years and most top Bordeaux can last 20, 25 years. It’s a sign of the system that a great 1985 Morgon [ cru Beaujolais ] is not going to get 100 points because it’s not fair to the reader to equate a Beaujolais with a 1982 Mouton-Rothschild. You only have three or four years to drink the Beaujolais.

    . . .

    WINE TIMES: So it’s the aging potential that is the key factor that gets a wine into the 90s.

    PARKER: Yes. And it goes back to how I evaluate vintages in general. To me the greatness of a vintage is assessed two ways: 1) its ability to provide great pleasure — wine provides, above all, pleasure; 2) the time period over which it can provide that pleasure.

    . . .

  5. Thanks Bob! That does somewhat confirm my theory.

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