Whether you prefer white or red wine is generally a matter of taste.
But if you want the healthiest pick, which should you choose?
Red wine has drawn lots of attention for its research-backed potential to lower the risk of heart disease and lengthen your lifespan.
Does white wine have the same benefits?
This article will review what you need to know about red and white wine — how they’re made, what to watch out for and which is healthier.
What is wine?
Wine is made from fermented grape juice.
Grapes are picked, crushed and placed in buckets or vats to ferment. The process of fermentation turns the natural sugars in the grape juice into alcohol.
Fermentation can occur naturally, but sometimes winemakers add yeast to help control the process.
The crushed grapes are put through a press, which removes the skins and other sediment. Whether this step is done before or after fermentation determines whether the wine becomes red or white.
To make white wine, grapes are pressed before fermentation. Red wine is pressed after fermentation.
After this step, the wine is aged in stainless steel or oak barrels until it’s ready to be bottled.
Summary: Wine is made from fermented grape juice. The grapes are picked, crushed and then allowed to ferment in buckets or vats.
What’s the difference between red and white wine?
The main difference between white and red wine has to do with whether the grape juice is fermented with the grape skins.
To make white wine, grapes are pressed and skins, seeds and stems are removed before fermentation.
However, to make red wine, the crushed grapes are transferred to vats directly and they ferment with the skin, seeds and stems. The grape skins lend the wine its pigment, as well as many of the distinctive health compounds found in red wine.
As a result of steeping with the grape skins, red wine is particularly rich in plant compounds that are present in those skins, such as tannins and resveratrol (1).
White wine also has some of these healthy plant compounds, but generally in much lower amounts (2).
Many different grape varietals are used to produce wine, including Pinot Gris, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
While red varietals are used to make red wine, white wine can actually be made from red or white grapes. For instance, traditional French champagne is made with the red Pinot Noir grape.
Many countries produce wine. Some of the main wine-growing regions are in France, Italy, Spain, Chile, South Africa, Australia and California in the US.
While most regions grow several types of grape varietals, some places are particularly known for one or two, such as Napa Valley Chardonnay, Spanish Tempranillo and South African Chenin Blanc.
Summary: Red wine grapes are fermented with the skin on, which gives the wine its color and provides beneficial plant compounds. Grapes for white wine, on the other hand, have their skins removed.
Red and white wine have very similar nutrition profiles.
However, looking at the nutrient content per 5-ounce (148-ml) glass, you can see that there are some differences (3, 4):
|Red Wine||White Wine|
|Carbs||4 grams||4 grams|
|Sugars||1 gram||1 gram|
|Manganese||10% of the RDI||9% of the RDI|
|Potassium||5% of the RDI||3% of the RDI|
|Magnesium||4% of the RDI||4% of the RDI|
|Vitamin B6||4% of the RDI||4% of the RDI|
|Iron||4% of the RDI||2% of the RDI|
|Riboflavin||3% of the RDI||1% of the RDI|
|Phosphorus||3% of the RDI||3% of the RDI|
|Niacin||2% of the RDI||1% of the RDI|
|Calcium, vitamin K, zinc||1% of the RDI||1% of the RDI|
Overall, red wine has a slight edge over white because it has higher amounts of some vitamins and minerals. Nevertheless, white wine contains fewer calories.
Summary: In terms of nutrients, red and white wine are neck and neck. However, red wine has slightly higher levels of some vitamins and minerals.
The benefits of red wine
Because it ferments with grape skins and seeds, red wine is very high in plant compounds that deliver a variety of health benefits.
It may help reduce heart disease risk
Red wine is the supposed secret behind the French paradox.
That’s the notion that there’s relatively little heart disease in France, despite a tradition of eating a diet high in saturated fat (5, 6).
Research has found that drinking red wine may have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system (7, 8).
In fact, it’s been linked to a 30% lower risk of dying from heart disease (9).
In part, that may be because wine contains compounds that have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. These help reduce heart disease risk (10).
It may help increase “good” HDL cholesterol
Red wine has also been shown to increase levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, which is linked to lower rates of heart disease (11).
A small study found that adults who were told to drink 1–2 glasses of red wine daily for four weeks saw an 11–16% increase in their HDL levels, compared to those who simply drank water, or water and a grape extract (11).
It may slow down brain decline
Several studies have suggested that drinking red wine can help slow down age-related mental decline (12, 13, 14, 15).
This may partly be due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity of resveratrol, an antioxidant-like compound in red wine (16, 17).
Resveratrol seems to prevent protein particles called beta-amyloids from forming. These beta-amyloids play a key role in forming the plaques in the brain that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease (18).
Other benefits of resveratrol
Resveratrol has been much studied for its potential benefits as a supplement. In these concentrated doses, resveratrol seems to have the following benefits:
- Eases joint pain: It prevents cartilage from getting damaged (19, 20).
- Helps with diabetes: It increases insulin sensitivity. In animal studies, resveratrol has prevented complications from diabetes (21, 22, 23, 24, 25).
- Extends lifespan of various organisms: It does this by activating genes that ward off the diseases of aging (26, 27).
- May help with cancer: Resveratrol’s potential to prevent and treat cancer has been widely studied, but results have been mixed (23, 28, 29).
Summary: Red wine has been linked with a variety of health benefits. It’s thought to reduce the risk of heart disease, raise HDL cholesterol and slow age-related mental decline.
Other possible health benefits of wine
A lot of research has specifically highlighted red wine, but white wine and other types of alcohol are also linked to health benefits.
Here are some of the main ones:
- Reduced risk of heart disease: More than 100 studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption is linked with a 25–40% reduction in the risk of heart disease (30).
- Lowered risk of death from heart disease or stroke: In a Danish study, people who drank low-to-moderate amounts of wine were less likely to die from heart disease or stroke, compared to people who drank beer or other spirits (31).
- Better cholesterol levels: Moderate amounts of alcohol also seem to improve cholesterol levels (32).
- Lowered risk of death: Many population studies have shown wine drinkers to have lower risks of death from all causes, including from heart disease (33).
- Reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases: Light-to-moderate drinkers of wine or other alcohols also have lower risks of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, compared to non-drinkers (33, 34).
- Lowered risk of osteoarthritis: At least one study found that wine drinkers had a lower risk of the disease, compared to beer drinkers (35).
- Lower risk of some cancers: Observational studies suggest that wine drinkers may have lower rates of lung cancer (36).
That being said, it’s important to keep in mind that these studies are observational in nature. They can not prove cause and effect and should be taken with a grain of salt.
Summary: In general, drinking low-to-moderate amounts of alcohol is linked to a lower risk of some diseases.
Drawbacks of drinking wine
The biggest drawbacks of drinking wine come from drinking too much of it (37).
How much is too much depends on who you ask, since guidelines for low-risk alcohol consumption vary between countries.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends no more than two standard drinks a day, five days a week (37).
Many individual countries, including the US, recommend limiting alcohol to less than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. Some countries’ upper limits are even less than that.
A standard drink is defined as a 5-ounce (148-ml) glass of 12% alcohol wine (38).
Note that a lot of “big” reds, such as those from California, are often higher in alcohol, in the range of 13–15% by volume.
The health benefits of red wine can easily be negated by drinking too much. In excess amounts, it can cause organ damage, dependency and brain damage (35, 37).
Drinking too much may also increase your risk of contracting infectious diseases, because it may weaken your immune system (39).
Furthermore, drinking alcohol seems to raise the risk of developing multiple types of cancer (40).
These serious risks are the main reasons health experts urge people not to start drinking for the sake of health.
Summary: Drinking alcohol of any kind can have negative health consequences, especially if you drink too much.
Is red wine healthier than white wine?
If you are going to drink wine, it seems clear that red wine is significantly healthier — or less bad — than white wine.
In other words, red wine is the clear winner when it comes to health effects.
That being said, consuming alcohol should never be promoted as a way to improve health, given that the harmful effects can be massive if you drink too much of it.
Additionally, most of the studies showing benefits are observational in nature, meaning they can’t prove cause and effect.
If you do enjoy drinking wine, red wine is the better choice, but limiting your alcohol consumption (or avoiding it altogether) is always the safest choice.