You know the drill: You come home from a tough day at work craving a refreshing glass of crisp white wine, only to realize you forgot to put a bottle in the refrigerator. Or unexpected company arrives and you want to serve something more special than what you have at the ready. So what's the best way to chill a bottle quickly?
Nature can help, but not always. My favorite wine chillers were the Merced River on a camping trip to Yosemite Valley in 1989 (Kenwood Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, absolutely delicious), and the two-foot snowbank on my patio during Snowmageddon in 2011 (too many bottles to mention).
But such natural wine chillers are not always available, and the go-to seems to be the traditional ice bucket, used in restaurants as part of the theater of wine service. The wine gewgaw industry offers various gizmos to help, including silly apparatuses that basically spin a bottle in an ice bath and gel-filled sleeves to keep in your freezer and slip over a bottle for 20 minutes. Folklore offers other solutions: Wrap a bottle in wet newspaper and hold it out the window of your car while driving to your picnic, or — less esoteric — wrap it in a wet dish towel and stick it in the freezer for a short time.
I tested various methods for chilling a bottle of wine in 20 minutes, because, well, who doesn't enjoy opening seven bottles of wine on a Monday night, and because 20 minutes seems to be the amount of time people are willing to wait. But the best method was tried and true, and does not require expensive gadgets or tomfoolery.
But what is the proper temperature to serve a wine? Temperature does affect the wine's expression of fruit as well as our perception of tannin and alcohol. Americans tend to drink our whites too cold and our reds too warm. According to "Larousse Wine," a cinder block of a reference book to be published in its second edition in November, "ordinary" whites should be consumed at 45 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit, while "classy" whites should be at 54 degrees, allowing their subtleties to express themselves. Reds should be served at precisely 57 degrees for "young, fresh reds" or 63 to 64 degrees for "great reds." Larousse advised us to never chill a bottle in the freezer, because it may explode. That's a risk, of course, if you forget it. So set a timer.
Temperature is all subject to your personal taste, in truth. Chilling a wine quickly to your preferred temperature can be tricky. Armed with my Thermapen instant-read thermometer and a few wine gadgets, I began to test.
A wine at room temperature clocked in at 67 degrees. (It was a cool evening, and we had the windows open.) A bottle straight from the refrigerator (who knows when I put it there) was at 40 degrees. After 20 minutes on the counter, the wine registered 46 degrees — in the optimal range for "ordinary" whites, according to Larousse.
I also put two bottles in the freezer, one wrapped in a wet dish towel. After 20 minutes, the wine in the towel-wrapped bottle was 63 degrees, while the wine in the unwrapped bottle was 58 degrees. The wet towel insulated the bottle and inhibited it from cooling. Based on that, my advice is: Don't waste your dish towels.
Vacu Vin, a company that sells rubber stoppers to preserve wines and a pump to create a vacuum in the bottle, markets a gel-pack sleeve to keep in your freezer. The idea is to slip this sleeve over a bottle and wait 20 minutes for the wine to chill. I use this sleeve all the time; it's easy and convenient. The wine I tested was at 57 degrees after 20 minutes in the sleeve — about the same as the bottle in the freezer, without the risk.
I saved the ice bucket for last. Ice and water encourage a temperature exchange. Chemists will tell you to throw some salt into the mix for ion exchange, or something geeky like that. When I tested the temperature of a wine after 20 minutes in an ice bucket, it was at 62 degrees. But of course the top of the bottle was not immersed in the bucket. When I poured out a glass and stuck the thermometer back in the bottle, the rest of the wine measured a cool 52 degrees.
So the bucket of ice and water trumps the freezer, the freezer/towel gimmick and the gel sleeve.
Another piece of conventional wisdom tells us to put a bottle of red wine on the door of the refrigerator for about 30 minutes before we drink it, to chill it slightly and bring the wine close to "cellar" temperature. I tested by starting with a wine that was 67 degrees at room temperature. After 20 minutes on the refrigerator door, it was 65 degrees, and after 30 minutes, it was at 63 degrees. At 40 minutes it was at 62 degrees — a good temperature for "great reds," according to Larousse.
Bottom line: Make sure your ice machine is working for your white wines. And keep space open on the door of your refrigerator for your reds.