Wine: When whites are too cold and reds are too warm

Columnist September 10, 2013

The wine was tart with pucker-strength acidity. It seared my mouth and disappeared, leaving nothing but a wince. Was it faulty? Imbalanced? Poorly made?

Not at all. It was too cold.

Dave McIntyre is the wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

Twenty minutes later, the wine, an Orvieto from northern Italy made by a winery named Argillae, tasted like a fruit basket of peaches, apricots, mangoes and almonds. It hadn’t opened up, as wine lovers like to say. It had warmed up.

Almost any wine drinker knows that white wines should be served cold and red wines at room temperature. But we often drink our whites too cold and our reds too warm. My straight-from-the-fridge Orvieto was, well, frigid.

That refrigerator temperature — about 40 degrees for most home models — deadens the wine’s fruit while magnifying its acid and alcohol. So if your bottle has been chilling for several days or even a few hours, plan to leave it out at room temperature for 30 minutes or so before drinking.

About those warm reds: The maxim that reds should be served at room temperature dates from an era before central heating and air conditioning. Red wines served at 70 degrees or higher can taste flabby. A slight chill — say, 30 minutes on the door of your refrigerator — can brighten the fruit and lift the aromas.

At Central Michel Richard in the District, general manager and wine director David Hale presides over two glass-enclosed wine vaults on display. Whites are kept at a steady 50 degrees, reds at 62 degrees, ready for service.

“Serving a white wine too cold is like putting a mask on it,” Hale says. “You cover up the non-fruit aromas, like herbs or minerals. It turns the wine into alcoholic water.”

Reds are the opposite, especially full-bodied, higher-alcohol reds such as zinfandel. Hale notes that higher-alcohol wines are called “hot” and advises against matching heat with heat.

“Spicy, hot foods tend to emphasize the alcohol, and serving the wine too warm can do the same thing,” he says.

Many restaurants don’t have temperature-controlled vaults for their wine. If you get a white that is refrigerator-cold, don’t be shy about asking that it be left on the table instead of in an ice bucket. You might have to defend your bottle against an overzealous wait staff determined to plunk it back on ice. And if your red is too warm, you can really flummox servers by asking for an ice bucket.

Now, I’m not trying to make wine more intimidating by throwing out old rules and imposing new ones. You don’t need a special thermometer to check your wine, a climate-controlled cellar (unless you are collecting expensive wines for aging) or a dual-zone chiller to keep whites and reds at their ideal temperatures.

Luckily, it’s easy to bring your extra-cold white wine to a more favorable temperature. All it takes is patience while watching the bottle sweat condensation. But what if you’ve forgotten to chill it altogether? Stick it in a bucket with ice and cold water (adding salt helps the temperature exchange) for 15 to 20 minutes.

Hale confesses that at home, he’ll even toss a bottle of white in the freezer if time is short.

“In about 10 to 12 minutes, it’s ready to go,” he says. “But it works best if you haven’t already had other wines, so you don’t forget it. Wine slushies are not delicious.”

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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