The Limits of an Old Rule
Room temperature for reds, fridge-cold for whites, right? Much of the time it is in fact that simple – we want whites to be cold and reds to be, er, not cold, and that’s that. But actually, and I’m sorry to have to tell you this, if you want to get the best out of your wine you’re going to have to pay a little more attention to exactly what ‘room temperature’ is, what ‘cold’ is and several stages in between.
The truth is, the temperature at which a wine is served is the single most important factor in determining whether you’re tasting it at its best or at its worst. The same wine, served one day at the correct temperature, the next day a few degrees too warm or too cold, will taste completely different. One will seem balanced, satisfying, full of flavour, and just right. The other will not. It might be muted, lacking fruit or even actively unpleasant. Now I’m not saying that getting the temperature right will make a bad wine good (unfortunately) but it is certainly true that getting it wrong can make a good wine taste bad, while taking a bit of extra care over the temperature at which you serve a decent, everyday wine will make it seem an infinitely more satisfying and sophisticated drink. If you’ve ever had a bottle of wine in a good restaurant and thought, ‘This is excellent, much better than the stuff I drink at home’, bought some and taken it back with you only to be disappointed, the chances are the temperature had a lot to do with it.
How Warm is Your House? How Cold is Your Fridge?
So how can we get the temperature right, or at least avoid getting it catastrophically wrong and ruining that bottle of Petrus we’ve been saving? Well, taking our basic rule of room temperature for reds and fridge-cold for whites as a starting point, we might ask ‘What exactly is room temperature anyway?’ My mother insists on having the central heating turned up to 11 at all times, while I once heard my school bursar remark ‘I wish the rest of my house was as warm as my fridge’. It is worth bearing in mind that whoever came up with this rule did so in the days before central heating was commonplace. Accordingly, ‘room temperature’ for most red wines should actually be interpreted as between 13.5 and 18°C. According to Wikipedia, for scientific purposes room temperature is usually defined as being between 20 and 25°C. That’s quite a discrepancy, and it’s an important one. Red wine served too warm is not a pleasant experience. I’ve been to some surprisingly expensive restaurants where red wine has appeared that seems to have been kept next to a hot pipe. In this instance, assuming it hasn’t been damaged by the heat, it’s OK and recommended to ask for an ice bucket.
Of course, you don’t want to go too far in the opposite direction. Red wine served too cold will taste and smell of very little. Only the lightest reds, such as Beaujolais, are good when chilled below 13.5°C. After that, generally speaking, the finer the wine the closer to the 18°C mark you want it. Top Bordeux is best between 16.5 and 18°C, for example, while most everyday reds prefer somewhere around 14°C.
The problems are the same with white and rosé wine, but the temperature range shifts down to between 7 and 10°C. Again, the lighter, crisper wines – Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, etc. – are best at the lower end of that spectrum, while fuller, richer wines like white Burgundy and other Chardonnays are better slightly warmer. Most sweet whites should be served coldest of all – between 3 and 7°C, otherwise the amount of sugar involved can make them taste overwhelming and sickly.
Achieving the ideal temperature is a tricky task. There are expensive solutions in the form of wine fridges with different zones for different types of wine. Alternatively, the ideal cellar should be around 11°C, meaning you can bring your red wines up from it and allow them to gently come up a few degrees as you serve them. If you can’t afford either of these, it’s best to get the wine to the cooler end of its ideal temperature range, then drink it before it has a chance to realise what is happening and warm up.
Ben Greene blogs about fine and rare wines and has worked with wine merchants for the past 10 years. When he’s not online or at a tasting he enjoys cricket, cooking and the occasional deviation from wine to beer.