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White Wine


Why Chill White Wine, but Not Red?
Because Temperature Changes Flavours

A dedicated wine thermometer, in a wooden display case, embossed on the inside with the ideal serving temperature for each style of French wine… how fussy, I thought.

But that was then – before I visited Napa. A few wine tasting parties later, having met wine investors, and wine makers, I’ve changed my mind. I now think that serving temperature is one of the critical elements in appreciating a wine. Just as fine wines can be totally ruined by drinking from the ‘wrong’ glasse, serving wine at the wrong temperature can absolutely kill it.

Scientific research has shown that taste buds function differently with changing temperature. For example, the perception of sweetness in a solution is strongly affected by the temperature of that solution -it tastes sweeter as it warms up. But we don’t need hard data to convince us of this. Try the following experiment: Take an inexpensive oak-y Australian Chardonnay and pour it into two half bottles. Leave one of these at room temperature, and chill the other down to fridge temperature; ten minutes should suffice. Then taste the two wines. The wine at room temperature may well taste a bit flabby, sweet or confected, but the chilled bottle is likely to be much more savoury, leaner and with more ‘structure’. Try the same experiment with a sweet wine, and you’ll probably find that the wine at room temperature tastes sweeter and less focused than the chilled version.

The conclusion? Chilling white wines generally makes them taste less sweet and more savoury, and generally makes them taste ‘less’ overall. In fact the worst white wine I ever tasted, a papaya wine from Kenya which had a delicate bouquet of feline urine, was almost palatable when served ice cold. You had to drink it quickly, though, before it had a chance to warm up. On the other hand, chill a fine Burgundy or Alsace white too much, and you’ll miss the nuances these wines have to offer.

With red wines, a similar thing happens, but here it has more to do with tannins than sweetness. Whereas white wines get their structure from their acidity, reds rely on a combination of acidity and the bitter group of compounds known as tannins for their substance. Chilling a red wine – really chilling it, exaggerates the tannins, gives the wine more structure, hides fruitiness, and makes it less expressive on the nose. This is what is going on when your wine tastes too vinegary. Conversely, as a red warms up, the tannins become less apparent and the wine becomes more volatile. While intuitively you’d think that it’s therefore a good idea to warm reds up to make them more expressive on the nose, what actually happens is that as a red is overheated, the nose loses its focus: there’s quite a narrow window of temperatures where a wine shows well, and it’s not a good idea to stray outside of these parameters. One non-wine geek friend of mine had a dreadful habit of opening red wines a couple of hours early and sticking them on top of the oven. By the time the wine was poured, it was lukewarm – almost undrinkably so. Maybe Mr. Wine-Geek-Not likes it that way. You can discover your personal preferences by putting a chill on your wine, then let it come to room temperature as you drink it. You will likely notice an array of flavors opening up over time. You choose your ‘sweet spot’.

Now, the historical twist; when wines were first enjoyed in England, room temperature was approximately 50°F / 10°C, meaning that both white and red wines were already chilled. Our world of central heating and air conditioning is creating a warmer, more comfortable environment, somewhere around 70°F / 21°C. In this case, one may defer to the “10 & 10 minute rule of refrigeration” where the whites are removed from the fridge ten minutes before serving, and reds go into the fridge ten minutes before opening. Some swear by the 20 minute rule, so again, experiment. Also, there are a few light reds, such as those from Beaujolais or the Loire, that can benefit from a good chilling as much as a white wine. You don’t need to get get a wine’s temperature within a fraction of a degree, but chilling is worth paying attention to – chilling, not freezing. 

Course, you could always cheat and use a bottle bracelet, also called a Vinometer – a stainless steel band that fits around the bottle and registers its temperature on a “mood” strip. Very cool.

Recap: It’s much easier to warm a wine in the glass while you’re drinking, than it is to cool it again in the glass as you wait by the fridge, tapping your foot, studying your watch, so err on the side of a bit too cool.