wine temperature – cool is the rule

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fussing about the right temperature for serving wine may seem like yet another instance of the extreme lengths wine lovers will go to in pursuit of perfection. Kind of like the owner of that show-stopping toy Affenpinscher fussing about which brush to use on its tail. It sometimes it seems as if every single aspect of buying, storing and serving wine is a mine field, laden with bottle-busting decisions. But in this case it really does matter. Temperature has both long term and immediate impacts on the quality of your wine tasting experience.

If you drink a wine that is too cold, you are missing virtually all of its bouquet and most of its flavor. If you are drinking wines too warm, you are enhancing volatile aromas, such as paint thinner or nail polish. Warm wines also tend to taste hot and alcoholic, and to feel soft and flabby in the mouth. The hallmark of any good wine is balance, and when the temperature is wrong, whether too hot or too cold, it plays havoc with that balance.

So what is the ideal temperature, you ask? Well, it varies (of course) according to the wine being served, but the rules are fairly straightforward. Very few wines should be drunk cold. Champagnes and sparkling wines may best be enjoyed well chilled. Yet even there, it is possible to freeze all the subtlety right out of them. Ice cold is fine for beer and soda, dry Sherries and inexpensive rosés. These may be served right out of the fridge. Anything else, including sparkling wines, should be warmer than that.

It is true that almost all white wines — and many rosés — show best when they are just slightly chilled — what used to be called cellar temperature. This applies whether the wine is crisp and steely, like a French muscadet or Chablis; herbaceous and grassy, like a New Zealand sauvignon blanc; oaky and buttery, like a California chardonnay; or fragrant and floral, in the style of many rieslings and viogniers.

The optimal cellar temperature for storing wines is around 52 to 55 degrees, and that is right over the heart of the plate for serving your white wines. They should feel cool, not cold, to the touch. It is much more common for white wines to be served too cold rather than too warm, because retailers, whether grocery stores or restaurants, often keep them refrigerated. A wine that has been in cold storage for more than a couple of hours will need a good half hour to come back up to cellar temperature. Some folks swear they can accelerate the process by putting the wine in the microwave; I cannot recommend this procedure. It’s best to wait; and while you are waiting, take an occasional sip to see for yourself how the flavors emerge as the wine warms. Cupping your hands around the bowl of the glass will speed things up a bit.

White wines that are too warm to serve can be quickly and effectively chilled by submerging them in a bucket of ice and cold water. Make sure you have plenty of water; about half water and half ice is perfect. Ten minutes in the ice bucket will bring them down to cellar temperature; more than that and they will be too cold. It won’t do the wine any harm to chill it down quickly, but it is not a cure-all. If a wine has been improperly stored at temperatures exceeding 70 degrees, or exposed to direct sunlight for any length of time, it may have been “cooked” and chilling won’t save it.

Red wines are more commonly served too warm than too cold. If they have come straight from a cool cellar, they may need to warm up just a bit, because their optimal serving temperature is right around 60 degrees. But most often they have been sitting out on a retail shelf, or in a room temperature storage bin, or — worst case scenario here — in a restaurant kitchen.

I’ve been served (with great ceremony I’m afraid) more than one old bottle of restaurant red plucked from a shelf next to the oven. These wines are the color of brown bricks and smell like raisins rotting in the sun, and there is nothing you can do for them at that point but weep. However, if you have a sound bottle of red that has not been accidentally cooked, yet is slightly warm to the touch, it can quickly be chilled using an ice bucket, just as you would a white wine. Leave it in there for five or ten minutes, and remember that when chilling a warm wine in this way the bottle will feel colder to the touch than the wine inside, because the glass will cool more quickly than the liquid.

I often store red wines in the refrigerator after they have been opened. By cooling them down they may last an extra day or even two. Remember to pull them out at least 30 to 45 minutes before you want to drink them.

The old rule was to serve red wines at room temperature, but that was before such conveniences as central heating were widespread, at least in Europe. Your own sense of touch, smell and taste will tell you better than any rule or thermometer at which temperature your red wines show their best. Experiment a bit when at home, and you’ll quickly develop the ability to simply feel the bottle offered to you by the sommelier and know in an instant whether it is at the proper temperature for enjoyment.


Jon Martinez said...

Hey Paul,

I bought an antique wine thermometer in France years ago. I wish I could post a picture, but it kind of has the shape of an old fashion corkscrew. It fits inside an opened bottle and checks the temperature. Inside the box, it has a recommended range for various wines. It is in Celsius, but I will convert.

Champagne 41-44.6 °F
Blanc, Rosé doux 37.4-41 °F (doux=sweet)
Blanc, Rosé sec 44.6-50 °F (sec=dry)
Bourgognes 59-60.8 °F
Bordeaux 64.4-68 °F
Beaujolais 48.2-51.8 °F
Côtes du Rhône et autres Rouges 55.4-57.2 °F

These are very helpful and I see them work well for my Rhône-style wines.


Sean P. Sullivan said...

Paul, as you may know, this is a subject near and dear to me. I personally like to drink my reds between 62-66 degrees. If a red wine is 70 degrees or over, I find it gets thrown way out of balance, particularly in regards to the alcohol. The higher the alcohol, the more important I feel it is that the wine is on the cooler end of the scale.

Much cooler than 62 and, for me, the fruit gets muted and the oak notes correspondingly seem more prominent. For whites, I go with 50-55 although increasingly I find 50 a bit too cold.

I frequently use a temperature sensor if I am out tasting wine (commercially available from VinoTemp I believe) because the effects of temperature are so profound.

One of the (many) reasons why I infrequently buy wine when I go out to restaurants is because the red wines are often room temperature which is way too warm for my taste. I measured one this summer at 80 degrees! More than a few people have seen me put an ice cube in a glass pour wine - to their horror usually I might add. While it obviously dilutes the wine, to me wine is almost completely unpalatable when it gets to 75 degrees or above as it frequently does in a restaurant in the summer. If I buy a bottle, I usually ask for an ice bucket. As a result, when I do buy wine at a restaurant I usually either buy white wine or bring my own.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm strange, but I like to start with my whites cold and have it warm as I drink it and experience the temperature change as the last sip is room temp. Then I pour another glass and do it again.

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