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Drinking Habits

Red Wine vs. White Wine: The Real Differences

January 12, 2024
23 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
January 12, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Choosing Between Red and White Wine

  • Red and white wine are different in many ways, including the grapes used, how they are produced and aged, and the health benefits they offer.
  • Learn about the differences between red and white wine and make moderate drinking choices that suit your needs and taste preferences.
  • The Reframe app can guide you on your journey to making healthy drinking choices that fit your health goals.

Wine connoisseurs often tell us that grilled steaks, lamb, and aged cheeses pair best with red wine, while seafood, poultry, salads, and creamy pasta dishes are better suited to white wine. Some of us follow these guidelines, while others may think, “The heck with that!” and go with what we like. When it comes down to it, does it matter what we prefer in the red vs. white wine debate? Maybe! 

At the same time, there’s much more to learn about the differences between red and white wine beyond finding the best wines to pair with food.

  • What are the benefits of red and white wine, including health-related ones?
  • Are there any differences in the production of white and red wines?
  • What are popular misconceptions about red and white wines?

Let’s dive deeply into the differences and similarities between red and white wines, so you can make the best decision for yourself.

Classifying Wines

The difference between white vs. red wines goes beyond simply classifying them as “white” or “red.” In fact, there can be vast differences between different styles of red wines — and even between different producers of the same style! Ultimately, each wine’s unique signature comes from the selected grape variety, the growing region, and the winemaking process.

Let’s look at some key factors in creating different styles of wine.

Grape Selection

Some of us look at two different bottles of wine and can’t imagine the difference. Others can identify the subtleties between different grapes or growing regions. But did you know more than 10,000 grape varieties are grown in vineyards worldwide? It’s no wonder that no two types of wine are the same!

Different grapes call for different processes in winemaking. Each grape has its own unique color, flavor, aroma, and other characteristics. Each type of wine follows a careful selection process of grapes from different regions where climate and growing conditions vary. Winemakers choose from grape varieties to produce sweet, fruity, or spicy wines — or a blend of these qualities!

The Rosé Question

Generally speaking, light-colored grapes end up as white wines, and dark-colored grapes end up as red wines. But this isn’t always true! Wine gets most of its color from its grape skins. Some red grape varieties have light flesh under their outer skins. Removing the dark skins can produce a light-colored juice for fermentation. In some cases, the flesh is also dark. This results in a wine called a rosé — a pink shade lighter than a “red” but darker than a “white.”

Contrary to popular belief, rosé wine is not just a mix of red and white wines. In fact, rosé wines are just made with certain varieties of skinless red grapes and almost universally produced using the white wine process (more on that later!).

What About Wine Blends?

Winemakers create wine blends by combining different grape varieties to form a new concoction intended to balance out different flavors. Wine connoisseurs often turn up their noses on blended wines because they aren’t a “pure” picture of a particular grape variety, and a blended profile may be masking the flavor of low quality grapes. However, like many wines made from single-grape varieties, there are also many blended wines from which to choose. It’s simply a matter of preference. 

So how do winemakers make all these choices — and how do they turn these grapes into wildly different end products? Let’s take a look!

The Winemaking Process

Making wine is as much of an art as a science. Generally, wine production can be pictured as a venn diagram. On one side is “white wine” production style, and on the other is “red wine” production style. In the center are some wines that share aspects of both. And of course, some complex wines don’t fit in the diagram at all!

Let’s look at the general process for producing wine.

Step One: Harvest and Extraction

The process begins with harvesting ripe grapes from vineyards. Typically, this happens during the fall. Winemakers then crush the grapes to release their juice. If this newly extracted grape juice is destined to become a white or rosé wine, the juice goes straight to fermentation. If a red wine is being produced, the winemaker will add a portion of the leftover skins, seeds, and stems to the juice.

After the juice (or juice mixture) is ready, it is divvied up into fermentation tanks, and the fermentation process can begin.

Step Two: Fermentation

At this point, chemistry plays a prominent role. During the fermentation process, yeast converts sugars into ethanol (a.k.a., “pure alcohol”) and carbon dioxide. Several secondary compounds are also created during fermentation.

  • Organic acids. Organic acids (like tartaric acid) add acidity and glycerol, which contribute to the wine's flavor, aroma, and characteristics. 
  • Tannins. These astringent compounds are found in grape skins, seeds, and stems. They contribute to the wine's structure and mouthfeel, and they act as natural preservatives. During fermentation, these tannins change structure, resulting in a new taste profile.

As mentioned earlier, red wine is fermented with skins, seeds, and sometimes stems. This choice is responsible for red wine’s signature color and bitter taste. In contrast, white wine grapes are separated from their skins before fermentation, leaving only the juice.

Another difference between red and white wine fermentation is that red wine is fermented at a higher temperature than white wine. The difference in temperature during fermentation gives red wine its depth in flavor and helps white wine retain its fresh and fruity characteristics.

Step Three: To Age or Not To Age

After fermentation, the wine is separated from any solid remnants and is now ready for either bottling or aging in barrels or tanks. This is when huge differences start to appear in how red wines and white wines are treated. After fermentation, many white wines are bottled right away, whereas most red wines are aged.

Bottling a wine right away preserves the wine's acidity and prevents premature oxidation. If these are lost, it can result in a flat and dull flavor profile, ruining the variety’s intended appeal. The chemistry of red wines (remember tannins?) protects it from these effects, but white wine is particularly susceptible to the negative effects of aging. To preserve the delicate flavors involved in white wines, many of them go straight into the bottle. When white wine is aged, it is generally a short process. White wines appeal because of their freshness and fruity characteristics.

As red wine ages, it develops complex flavors, integrating the tannins and softening its structure. Unaged red wines tend to have sharp, bitter flavors. Over time, the tannins gradually ease, resulting in a much smoother, more balanced taste. For this reason, most red wines are aged. Certain niche varieties of red are not aged, including wines labeled as “young” — which are specifically intended to demonstrate the unaged qualities of that particular grape.

Aging Like a Fine Wine

The aging period allows wine to develop unique flavors and characteristics. The aging process mellows harsh tannins and acidity, blends different wine elements, and refines its composition. These influence the wine’s taste, aroma, and texture.

The aging process is deliberately slow to transform a young wine into a more refined and sophisticated one. During the process, many things can influence the end result of the wine, including humidity, temperature, and type of aging container.

Several processes are used for aging, each resulting in differences that suit the grape or style.

  • Stainless steel. Winemakers choose to age in stainless steel tanks because they’re durable, easy to clean, and space-efficient. Every part of the aging process can be tightly controlled to produce the desired end product. Since stainless steel transfers no taste to the wine, this method works better for preserving the delicate, fruity flavors in white wines.
  • Oak barrels. Aging wine in oak barrels is the most traditional way of aging wine. It’s commonly used with red wines and certain varieties of white (most notably chardonnay). Oak barrels produce a much more desirable chemical reaction with tannins, producing a softer taste. Likewise, oak transfers compounds like vanillin and lactones into the wine, imparting that unique “oaky” flavor. Different varieties of oak produce their own subtle notes, as well. Winemakers may choose to blend different oak varieties, use a single variety of oak, or split a batch of wine into oak and stainless steel to blend together later. New or used oak barrels can be chosen, with new ones imparting a stronger “oaky” flavor than used ones. This is one of the most complex parts of the winemaking process, and it’s responsible for producing the vast differences between different bottles of the same grape variety.

Does Wine Have Health Benefits?

Consuming wine has been linked to some health benefits, but take these suggestions with a word of caution. Wine — especially red wine — contains antioxidants, which protect the heart by reducing inflammation and improving blood vessel function. Studies show that drinking moderate amounts of wine may be linked to a lower risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes and may raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels (considered "good" cholesterol). 

The keyword here is “moderate drinking,” which is defined as less than 2 drinks per day for men and less than 1 drink per day for women, with 2-3 alcohol-free days per week. Excessive alcohol intake can have many harmful effects on health, including an increased risk of liver disease and certain cancers.

And, of course, all of this research is focused on the antioxidant properties of wine, which are most pronounced in red wine. Keep in mind that whatever health benefits of white wine and red wine are, these benefits can also be found in whole foods — including fresh grapes. Whole foods do not come with the same risk as alcohol, which, even in small amounts, can cause many of the same problems that red wine allegedly helps.

Let’s compare some research on white wine vs. red wine and see how they stack up.

Red Wine’s Health Benefits   

Red wine is associated with certain health benefits due to its unique compounds. Resveratrol, a polyphenol found in the skin of red grapes, is often credited for some of these advantages. Red wine also contains more flavonoids, particularly anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins, which have more anti-inflammatory properties than white wine. 

Recently, several studies looked at red wine’s role in having a positive impact on cognitive function and lowering the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. A 2015 study published in Molecular Basis of Disease reported that polyphenols and their metabolites may also prevent Alzheimer's disease. 

On the other hand, a 2022 study cautioned that while moderate red wine consumption seems to be associated with health and longevity, there are too many individual differences among humans to determine the true extent of resveratrol’s benefits.

Many studies on red wine’s benefits have specifically noted that the benefits only exist when red wine is included as part of a particular diet and lifestyle, while others have noted that the same benefits result from delivering a non-alcoholic concentrate of the beneficial antioxidants in wine. 

Clearly, more research is needed. Keep in mind that while these potential benefits exist, excessive alcohol consumption can have adverse effects, so moderation is key. Excessive wine intake in particular is associated with weight gain and dental health issues.

So if the verdict is still out on red wine, is white wine good for you?

Health Benefits of White Wine

Like red wine, white contains antioxidants like resveratrol, which may help protect the heart by reducing the risk of coronary artery disease. While its full potential benefits are still being studied, resveratrol is thought to have the potential to improve cardiovascular health by promoting healthy blood vessels and lowering cholesterol levels. Additionally, the antioxidants in white wine may have anti-inflammatory properties that could benefit overall health.

On the other hand, since most beneficial compounds in wine come from the skins of grapes, white wine does not have the same level of flavonoids as red wines.

While alcohol itself has negative impacts on skin health, there’s reason to believe that white wine may be the best type of wine for skin health. This is because sauvignon blanc and chardonnay wines in particular contain skin-benefiting compounds such as antioxidants, flavonoids, and alpha-hydroxy acids.

One caveat about white wine is that many white wines tend to be sweeter than red wines. While this isn’t always true (some dry white wines have less sugar than reds), red wines are almost universally low in sugar whereas white wines can be all over the map. For people watching their carbs or sugar intake, it’s important to seek out dry white wines instead of sweet ones.

Once again, white wine’s health benefits can be found in whole foods as well, but it only has value when consumed in moderation.

Popular Misconceptions About Red and White Wines

Now that we really know the difference between red and white wine, let’s finish off with some popular misconceptions about these two beverages.

  1. Only red wine has health benefits. Not true! Both red and white wine offer some benefits, but it’s important to remember these benefits only result from moderate intake. Wine should not be considered a substitute for a diet rich in whole foods that provide the same benefits.
  2. White wine is higher in sugar and calories than red wine. Not necessarily! Overall, and ounce for ounce, dry red and dry white wines can have a similar number of calories and carbs. However, it’s much more common to find sweet white wines than sweet red wines.
  3. Sulfites cause red wine headaches. Usually not! Unless you suffer from a sulfite allergy, it’s usually the tannins that are responsible for headaches (which are also a symptom of hangovers). If you are prone to headaches, seek out low-tannin wines like whites and older reds. As always, drinking in moderation and staying well hydrated are also helpful.
  4. There’s no difference in the amount of antioxidants found in organic wines and conventional wines. Likely untrue! Depending on how they are farmed, grapes grown in soil free of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers will probably have more antioxidants. 
  5. Wine is always good for you. Definitely not! There is a common belief that wine is generally healthy for us thanks to highly-publicized studies, the results of which are often taken out of context. Red and white wine have health benefits; however, the adverse effects of excessive alcohol consumption outweigh any of wine’s benefits.


We’ve learned that winemaking is both an art and a science. A lot goes into making good wines, including the selection of grapes, the fermentation, and the aging process. There are several differences between red and white wines in each area. Still, both offer several health benefits, such as reducing inflammation and improving blood vessel function, which translates into a lower risk of heart disease. Both types of wines may raise "good" cholesterol and lower a person’s risk of type 2 diabetes. However, red wines have higher levels of flavonoids than white wines, giving them an edge in heart-health benefits. Finally, it's important to remember that although red and white wines provide health benefits, individuals should consume them in moderation.

Summary FAQs

1. Is the initial processing in red and white wines the same?

Yes, it is. The initial red and white processing stage involves crushing the grapes to produce juice.

2. What are the fermentation differences in red and white wines? 

Red wines are fermented with their grape skins, seeds, and stems. These are separated from the grape juice during white wine fermentation before fermentation begins.

3. What are wine blends?

Wine blends combine two or more varieties of wine, often selected to balance different qualities of each other to produce a result with broader appeal.

4. Why is the aging process different for red and white wines?

Red and white wine have very different chemistry, and the aging process is quite scientific. Red wines are aged longer to ease the tannins, creating a smoother and more balanced taste. On the other hand, winemakers age white wines for shorter periods to maintain their delicate flavor.

5. What are the health benefits of both red and white wines?

Both red and white wines are known for having antioxidants. In particular, the antioxidant resveratrol is thought to protect the heart by reducing inflammation and improving blood vessel function. Research is still ongoing in this area, but alcohol itself is thoroughly proven to increase risk of other health issues.

6. What added health benefits does red wine have over white wine?

Red wine is much richer in flavonoids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. Research estimates that red wine has eight times the amount of flavonoids compared to white wine. Also, more recent research shows that red wine’s polyphenols may play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease.

7. Is drinking wine always healthy for you?

Alcohol is not healthy, but red wine and white wine do offer some benefits when consumed in moderation. Like any alcohol, excessive wine consumption can lead to serious health effects and outweigh any positive health benefits once offered.

Develop Healthy Alcohol Habits With Reframe

If you’re looking to gain a broader perspective on the effects of wine and other alcoholic beverages, the Reframe app is the place to go.

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions worldwide drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills to survive drinking less and thrive while navigating the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

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And that’s not all! We launch fun challenges monthly, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for seven days, so you have nothing to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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