Keeping Your Temper (Serving Temperature)

While the summer heat is enough to drive anyone crazy (just ask Michael Douglas), this weeks newsletter is more about the serving temperature of wine than one’s personal equilibrium. As we get deeper into summer and the mercury continues to rise (giving street creed to global warming enthusiasts world round), my thoughts have been revolving around the temperature (namely how to cool off), which led to this week’s topic – the best temperature at which to consume wine. As we all know, the serving temperature of a liquid plays a huge role in our enjoyment of the beverage (think of warm coke, unsweetened tea or cold chicken soup), all the more so for the nectar of the gods – wine.

By now, most readers of this newsletter know that many commonly known wine truisms aren’t actually true, and there are exceptions to every rule (such as Sean Connery’s affirmation in “From Russia with Love” with respect to the character of deviators from the axiom “red wine with meat and white wine with fish”). That said, one truism that makes sense and is grounded in science is that [most] red wines should be served at room temperature and [most] white (rosé and sparkling) wines should be served chilled (as with most “rules”, there are plenty of exceptions some of which are covered in this edition).

The majority of people know that red wines are supposed to be served at room temperature. However, most folks are unsure what exactly that means? Given that the temperature of any given room deviates tremendously from country to country and from season to season, there is no clear answer to this question. These days, classic room temperature for Americans is about 72F (22C) and for the French about 65F (18C). Back in the days of drafty old English Castles and dank French Château, “room temperature” meant 62-65F (16-18C) and even that was at high noon on a summer day. A result, red wines are often served too warm. To quote Hugh Johnson, “people should forget they ever heard of the concept of room temperature in connection with drinking wine”.

In this newsletter I provide some temperature ranges for different types of wines (including a handy chart at the bottom) but, as with most things in life and certainly where wine appreciation is concerned, your own palate is the one that matters most. Use the suggestions as guidelines but find the right temperature that provides maximum enjoyment for your palate, regardless of what others may tell you (I have gotten pushback in restaurants when requesting that a red wine be slightly chilled after it arrived at the table as if from a warm bubble bath).

With respect to red wine – the general rule of room temperature is a decent place to start. As a general rule, tannins (predominately present in red wines) don’t like the cold as it can harshen their bitterness and make a rich tannic red wine taste even more astringent. Thus, high tannin red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon should avoid any chill and are best appreciated around 65F. However, slight chill on many red wines can focus the flavors in a red wine and reduce the perception of its alcohol level (a handy side effect in this day and age of overly alcoholic wines). The fruitier, lighter and less tannic wines like Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, Chianti and Rioja are good candidates for being served chilled (think of them as white wines dressed in red clothing – light, fresh, low tannins, high fruit and low alcohol). With respect to red wines, it’s best to err on the side of caution and serve the wines a little overly chilled than too warm. A wine served over 65F will show mostly alcohol and present as too “hot”. Additionally, it’s a lot quicker to chill a bottle down than to [safely] warm it up. If the wine is too warm, either put the wine in a fridge for 10 minutes or if no refrigerator is available (i.e. you are in a restaurant), ask for an ice bucket filled with ice and water and chill the wine for a few minutes to bring the temperature down a notch or two. Just be prepared for horrified looks and a lecture or too about how wines need to be served at “room temperature”. At the same time, avoid over-chilling your red wine as it can cause the fruit to disappear, resulting in a wine showing as one-dimensional (one of the reasons that cheaper wines show better well chilled which tends to hide their flaws). If your wine is served too cold never heat it up by placing it near a heat source like the sun, oven or (gasp) microwave – these will harm the wine and cause it to become stewed and overly-soupy. Just warm it gently cupped in your hand with some gentle swirling and you will be good to go in no time.

For white wines, the basic concept of serving them chilled holds true as well – to a point. The cold allows the crucial acidity in the wine to be most effective and the relatively low level of tannins avoids the bitterness issue we see with red wines. However, most white wines are served overly chilled which tends to subdue aromas and nuances of flavor and create a flabby sensation in your mouth (think of eating a frozen banana – no nuance of flavor or aroma). Now, the concept of something being too cold is a tough argument to make in the US where we are obsessed with the cold, dumping ice cubes galore into anything and everything. To quote Eric Asimov “we fetishize cold beer to the extent of marketing a brand by promising it will provide an icier experience” (he is a bit crazed over overly chilled white wines). If you get a white wine that is too cold, warm the wine in your glass, a process that will provide a delightful aromatic experience as the wine comes to its perfect drinking temperature. Just avoid allowing the wine to become too warm as many white wines become almost bitter when they are served at too warm temperatures.

As chilling wine emphasizes its sweetness, dessert wines should always be served chilled – the sweeter the wine, the colder it should be. However, if the wine has a light sparkle (as opposed to sparkling wine) when poured, it has been over-chilled. Sparkling wine also benefits from serious chilling which serves to accentuate its crisp and refreshing character by improving the texture of the wine.

As a quick aside, not only do different temperatures seriously affect the taste and pleasure derived from wine, different barometric pressures at varying altitudes can change the chemical balance of a wine. A number of years ago I conducted an experiment and tried the same wine (a Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001) at the lowest place on earth (the Dead Sea) where it tasted somewhat flat and then a few days later in Katzrin on the Golan Heights (and the wines actual birthplace) where it was truly magnificent! Go figure…

I have included some wines and mentioned the relevant temperatures at which they should be enjoyed.

Carmel, Single Vineyard – Kayoumi, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007: Carmel’s chief winemaker Lior Lacser must spend his nights sprinkling the Kayoumi vineyard with angel dust, as there is something truly magical about this vineyard which produces an incredible Shiraz in addition to this magnificent and powerful Cabernet Sauvignon. Both powerful and elegant, this wine is full-bodied with great structure and harmony among the wood, fruit, tannin and acid. Give this wine a little time in the glass to open up and you will be rewarded with aromas of red cherries and currants, gooseberries, tart plums and cigar box followed by a fruit and earthy palate with slightly darker fruits, tobacco leaf, bittersweet chocolate, mildly spicy oak and muscular yet well integrated mouth coating tannins. A long lingering finish reminds you that it’s time for the next glass. Avoid chilling this wine as its rich tannins will rapidly become bitter if served too cold.

Dalton, Zinfandel, 2006: The lowest tiered wine from this winery manages to produce a robust, intriguing and full-bodied well integrated wine, truly the mark of a top notch winery. Loads of fruit, including cherries, plums, currants and raspberries on a slightly sweet background but nicely balanced with some spices. The wine serves up plenty of the more traditional Zinfandel notes including pepper, spice, rich black forest fruit and freshly paved road. Blended with a smidgen of Merlot, this wine is drinking beautifully now and will continue to cellar for another couple of years. Well worth seeking out and a YH Best Buy. As with the Kayoumi above, this rich wine will become bitter if too chilled.

Borgo Reale, Pinot Noir, Puglia, 2009: One of the few Italian wines I tasted that wasn’t made from an “Italian Grape”. While well made and eminently drinkable at 12.5% alcohol, I’m not sure what the point was in making an Italian Pinot. In any event, a well balanced wine with good structure, soft tannins, and near sweet fruit including red cherries, dried cranberries, cassis, overlaid with toasty oak and a hint of black pepper. A light and fun wine that might benefit from a bit of the chill (or even an ice cube).

Covenant, Lavan, Russian River, 2009: After the success of the 2008 vintage I was super-excited to try the 2009, and it did not disappoint. Sourced from a single vineyard in the Carneros section of Napa Valley, the wine was blended from two Chardonnay clones (Robert Young and Wente) and the difference in vineyards is easily distinguished even though the style remains the same – that of a powerful and sophisticated California Chardonnay that avoids being overly oaky and buttery, with hints of Burgundy. Tons of pear, apricots, peaches and figs on the nose and palate, accompanied by vanilla, oak and hints of spiciness. Slightly more mineral notes and less caramel than the 2008. A delicious and refreshing wine with plenty of acidity to keep everything honest. A long and slightly finish rounds out this very refreshing wine that will continue to cellar nicely for another 5 years. 350 cases were produced. Chill this wine too far down and you will miss out on the aromatic bounty this wine has to offer.

Teperberg, Terra, Sauvignon Blanc, 2010: After spending a week down-under where it is summer and all anyone drinks is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, I have a hankering for some crisp and cutting wine, notwithstanding the 50-degree differential from yesterday to today for me. Nice body and structure are complemented by crisp acidity and plenty of citrus fruits on both the nose and the palate. Guava, melon and some passion fruit are accompanied by a tinge of muskiness I found pleasurable. A crisp wine that is perfect for the summer, drink this one a bit colder than usual and enjoy the aromatic release as it warms in your hands.