Want to Be "Cool" with Wine?

Donald Dibbern

What if I could reveal a way to make all of your wines taste substantially better? What if this technique took little effort and even less money? And what if this free tip would work for white or red wines, both young and old?

Have I sufficiently inflamed your curiosity? Well, here it is: proper serving temperature.

The simple fact is that the vast majority of (quality) white wine is served too cold, while most red wines are served too warm.

This is understandable, in a way, since the two major controlled temperatures to which most people have ready access are that of the refrigerator (about 40F or 4C) and so-called room temperature (about 70F or 20C). Neither of these temperatures is optimal for nearly any wine.

In Jancis Robinson's Wine Course, no less an authority than Ms. Robinson, MW, herself stated, "It is impossible to overestimate the effect of serving temperatures on how a wine will taste."

The major effect of cooling wine is to emphasize the wine's acidity, although it also tends to mute some of the volatile aromatics and nose. A direct numbing effect of the cold liquid on the palate can also reduce the perception of sweetness in off-dry or dessert wines.

Warming, on the other hand, has the opposite effects, as well as accentuating the perception of body and alcohol in the wine and lessening the sensation of tannin.

By altering our perception of major components of the wine (such as aroma, flavor, sweetness, alcohol, body, tannin), temperature can dramatically affect the balance of a wine that, if achieved, can almost magically result in heightened enjoyment.

Many modern New World-style red wines are now trending away from what would be considered balanced and food-friendly wines. Whether you care to believe that the world's climate is progressively warming and resulting in riper grapes, or simply attribute the ever-climbing alcohol percentage of the majority of fine red wines to the palate and preference of certain wine critics, the fact remains that these super-ripe (overripe?) reds can benefit from being served on the cooler side.

A cool serving temperature can help tame their excessive alcohol and enhance their often flabby deficiency in acidity, bringing them a bit more into balance without much loss of their rich, even overblown, aromas. This can be tricky, though, if the wine is quite tannic, which can taste rather rough and even bitter if served overly cool.

On the other hand, modern white wines have benefited immensely from improved winemaking techniques with a much cleaner, fresher nose and palate than was possible long ago, particularly with fewer oxidative, cooked, and off-aromas, and thus can now tolerate being served somewhat warmer.

Whites, too, are perhaps more often from cooler grape-growing regions in general, and therefore less prone to over-ripening of the grapes. Less-ripe grapes result in higher acid wines with less alcohol and body, more typical of white wines than reds. Thus, these wines may benefit from serving at temperatures rather above "chilled."

However, it is well to note that there is substantial overlap here between whites and reds generally, and much of this depends significantly on the particular grape variety and style of winemaking.

There are certainly many huge California Chardonnays that are bigger, fuller, and richer than a light and delicate Beaujolais, made from the red Gamay grape. The former may very well be served warmer than the latter.

This principle can be extrapolated to appreciate that a lighter and less tannic style of Pinot Noir may benefit from a cooler serving temperature than a big burly Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz. Cooling a red wine may seem crazy, at least to those who don't remember the "Riunite on ice ... that's nice!" ad jingle from the '70's, but that is actually a perfect example since Lambrusco is a prototypical light red wine.

Ice-cold temperatures also minimize off-flavors, enhance acidity, cut the sweetness, and limit the fizz, all laudable ideas here. Unlike their ads, I wouldn't suggest putting the ice actually in the glass, however. It isn't just that most wine lovers find it déclassé (hey, my attitude is drink what you like and how you want - mulled wine, sangria, whatever), but cheap industrial-style Lambrusco hardly benefits from dilution, if you know what I mean.

I will not here rehash the oft-invoked and probably apocryphal stories to explain the supposed reason for confusion regarding the meaning of "room temperature reds," with tales of 65-degree draughty castles in Ye Olde Europe and such. Despite their lack of central heat, did they not have huge roaring fireplaces? To say nothing of their expected temperature in summer, without air-conditioning?

In all likelihood, most wine in that historical context was probably served around "cellar temperature" (the 50-55F found naturally in subterranean caves, which were the first real wine cellars). In fact, that very temperature turns out to be rather serviceable for most fine wines, red or white.

If one were to have to be limited to just a single temperature for drinking wine, cellar temperature would really be too cool only for the young and tannic reds, for which perhaps up to 65F would be preferable. Cellar temperature of 55 F would be too warm only for frankly sweet wines with insufficient acidity and lower quality non-vintage sparklers.

Nowadays, with just a bit of extra planning, one can easily chill a wine down, or let it passively warm up, to its proper serving temperature.

Warming a glass of wine can be gently accelerated simply with the heat from your hands. By analogy to my prior article on decanting, this doesn't have to be a complicated process by any means.

In other words, no need to hunt up that thermometer! Again, just trust your taste and teach your palate by way of experiment and experience. It can be quite useful and informative to take a wine you know quite well, intentionally over-chill it in the refrigerator, and taste it periodically as it warms up naturally to room temperature.

Don't be afraid to pull the expensive champagne out of the ice bucket at the restaurant and let it warm up a bit, since 32F will seem to boost the already high acid of that wine into the stratosphere, not to mention that you'll never smell the lovely bouquet for which you've spent all that money.

Finally, a physics trivia question: Which method will cool your bottle of wine faster, and why: (1) Plunge it into a bucket full of ice cubes alone, or (2) use a combination of ice and room-temperature water? The latter is much more efficient at cooling because of the far greater surface area of contact with the bottle, since liquids (the water, which quickly chills to the temperature of the ice) conduct heat far better than gases (the air around the few points of contact between the blocks of ice and the bottle).

This is also why the ice bath is much faster than the refrigerator. I speak from experience when I say that you may want to know this fact, if someone catches you pouring from your water goblet into the ice bucket at a very fancy restaurant.

© copyright 2008 by Donald A. Dibbern, Jr., all rights reserved

To contact Donald A. Dibbern Jr., write him at re.wine@verizon.net

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