We tend to drink wine at the wrong temperature.
Oh, here he goes again, making something needlessly complicated when it’s really quite simple: Serve white wines chilled, reds at room temperature. What could be easier?
But that old maxim is too facile. I prefer to think in terms of a temperature range in which wine tastes best. Too cold, and a white loses its nuance; too warm, and a red tastes dull and flat. Both extremes, paradoxically, strip wine of its fruit flavors and accentuate the alcohol. The wrong serving temperature can throw a wine out of balance.
Restaurants are particularly bad offenders when it comes to wine temperature, primarily because of storage limitations. If you want to play games with your servers, place your bottle of chardonnay on the table. See how quickly someone swoops by to plunk it back into its ice bath. To really flummox them, ask for an ice bucket for your red wine. It won’t need much time in there, just enough to create consternation about your sanity and what antics you might pull next.
A few years ago I indulged in a temperature-controlled wine chiller, then abandoned that move into geekdom after it broke, its replacement broke and I refused to buy a third. Instead, until my collection of bottles outgrew it, I kept a small basement storage room at about 55 degrees and found that most whites tasted great straight from storage, while reds tended to be astringent but warmed quickly and tasted best when they were still noticeably cooler than room temperature. If I was organized, I’d take the reds out of the room about a half-hour before dinner.
There were exceptions, of course.
Roses and crisp whites benefited from time in the refrigerator, while lighter reds such as Beaujolais barely needed to warm up from storage temperature.
So what is the best temperature range? Luckily, there is no need to stick a thermometer in your glass. Just remember some basic parameters. Refrigerator temperature is about 40 degrees, cellar temperature is 55 and room temperature 68 to 70. The optimal range for wine is 45 to 65 degrees. Within that range it helps to remember what wine you’re drinking.
Roses, crisp whites such as pinot grigio or picpoul de pinet and simple sparkling wines such as cava or prosecco are best served well chilled and taste good just a few minutes out of the fridge. These also tend to be warm-weather wines that offer immediate refreshment.
Complex whites such as chardonnay and champagne should be served only moderately chilled. With these wines, we need to balance refreshment with their subtleties (which is what we pay for, after all). About 30 to 45 minutes in the fridge or in an ice bath is enough; or if the wine has been numbed in the fridge, leave it at room temperature for about 20 minutes to let it start to get its circulation back.
For reds, we can be more flexible. If you keep your wines in the coolest part of your house, they might be fine. But a half-hour in the door of the fridge won’t hurt and probably will help. That is especially true when outdoor temperatures soar, as heat and humidity seem to weigh down a big red wine. You don’t want to deny yourself a red in summer, after all, when there are steaks or burgers sizzling on the grill.