Ask Wine Wizard

Color Problems In My Pinot Noir


Joe Koterba — North Eastham, Massachusetts asks,

I have been making red wine from fresh grapes for a number of years, but this is my first year in which I have crushed and de-stemmed 400 pounds of Pinot Noir. These grapes came from California, and I crushed them on September 14th. After crushing, I used potassium metabisulfite to stun the wild yeast and used RC-212 to start the primary fermentation after testing the pH, acid, and Brix (24.5). The primary fermentation is moving along as it should, but the must color has me concerned. I expected to have a light red color, but I have a light brown color. What is the likely cause, and will the color change after skin exposure? Thanks for your help.


I had this exact problem happen to me this year with one of my lots of Russian River Pinot. Thankfully, the original brick-red color disappeared and was replaced by bright red once the fermentation got going and the wine got back into a reductive carbon dioxide-rich environment and after a few day’s skin exposure. On this lot, I also used Colorpro fermentation enzyme from Scott Laboratories to help extract color from the skins. After pressing, the red color has stayed and I expect the wine to look fine. Some would say, “Welcome to the World of Pinot!”

As you may be aware, Pinot Noir is a naturally color-poor varietal. Additionally, the colored compounds tend to be more of the red spectrum rather than blue-purple. For this reason, when we make Pinot, we have to, first of all, be patient and manage our expectations; there’s no way a Pinot Noir will ever look like a Petite Sirah. We also need to do some additional things, like perhaps use a fermentative enzyme and definitely be careful of oxygen exposure after fermentation in order to preserve color.

Indeed, a newly destemmed Pinot Noir fermentation can appear almost like muddy-pink water the first couple of days and can definitely alarm those not accustomed to it. As the fermentation gets going it will begin to look more like real “wine” as oxygen levels go down (oxygen can brown delicate Pinot Noir pigments) and more skin components start extracting. It sounds like you’ve done the right things, including adding potassium metabisulfite, but I would check your pH and maybe add a little acid if it’s above 3.60. Wine color is pH sensitive and you’ll have better color retention and appearance if your pH is not too high. Pinot Noir doesn’t lend itself to extended maceration.

In fact, an Australian study showed that wine pigments can actually re-absorb back onto the grape skin matrix over time so be sure to press off within a day or three of dryness. Be sure to protect your new wine from oxygen, adjust the acidity if necessary (keep finished post-ML fermentation wine pH below 3.75) and store with FSO2 levels 25-32 parts per million. Try adding your sulfur dioxide in two doses when you adjust. Sometimes giving Pinot Noir a big hit all at once can actually bleach color.

Indeed, “Welcome to the World of Pinot!”

Related Links:

• To learn more about making Pinot Noir, check out Chik Brenneman’s “Varietal Focus” column on the grape from the Burgundy region in the December 2012-January 2013 issue of WineMaker magazine at http://winemakermag.com/story1227

Response by Alison Crowe.