One of the most insidious falsehoods about wine that still gets passed around like fortune-cookie wisdom is that red wines should be served and drunk at room temperature. If your “room temperature” is the thermostat reading inside a one-room stone cottage in the 1600s, you may be on to something, but otherwise you are doing your reds more harm than good if you follow this “standard” rule. In my opinion (and that of every wine author whose book I’ve read), there is no dinner wine that shows best when served at 20-21 degrees Celsius (70-72 Fahrenheit)…and yet every time I go to a restaurant or a wine tasting and am presented with a glass of red, it tastes like it’s been stored in the furnace room or directly above the kitchen range (in a couple of places in town, it literally is!). This, if you haven’t gathered already, is a huge pet peeve of mine.
Serving temperature, like pretty much every other variable involved in making, storing or drinking a bottle of wine, has a pronounced effect on the wine’s balance and flavour. When wines are served colder, they will be less aromatic on the nose, they will emphasize whatever acidity and tannin they have, and they will de-emphasize their level of alcohol. This is one reason why it’s not a good idea to drink reds totally chilled: any red with even a moderate level of tannin will seem tremendously tough, bitter and tannic when served very cold. Conversely, when wines are served warmer, their nose opens up and they become more aromatic, their acidity and tannins are de-emphasized and their alcohol level is emphasized. Since acidity and tannin are the two main components of a wine’s structure, and since high alcohol levels can make a wine seem loose and unstructured, muting the former while showcasing the latter by serving a wine at a warm temperature results in making what might be a perfectly structured wine seem fuzzy and unfocused, like its rabbit ears aren’t quite getting the proper reception. If you’ve ever ordered a $90 red at a restaurant and come away thinking it was a little more mealy and a little less sharp than you expected, you might have been robbed of a great wine experience by 3-4 degrees.
So what IS the proper drinking temperature for red wine? The exact recommended numbers vary depending on who you talk to, but as a general guideline, you won’t go too far wrong if you serve light to medium bodied reds (Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, etc.) at 12-15 degrees Celsius (54-59 F) and medium to full bodied reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.) at 15-18 degrees Celsius (59-64 F). I personally would reserve the 17-18 C serving temperatures for REALLY big, tannic reds that need the extra warmth to de-emphasize their tannin level. Since you’re probably not hovering over your glass of dinner wine with a thermometer in hand, here’s a more practical translation: if you start with your bottle at room temperature, stick your light-to-medium red in the fridge for 30-35 minutes and your medium-to-full red in the fridge for 20-25 minutes before drinking it. Keep in mind that within a few minutes your glass of wine will already be a degree or two higher than its initial serving temperature, so don’t freak out if it seems a touch cool at first. I like it at that initial temperature, but if you don’t, you’ll like it 5 minutes later.
This is pretty much the easiest, least labour-intensive thing to do to make sure that a good wine that somebody put a lot of effort into creating shows properly. If you are, or work for, a Calgary restaurant and happen to be reading this, I implore you to take the time to ensure that what you serve to your customers or feature on your wine list is at a decent temperature. It will make the wine taste better, which will make your food taste better, which will make everybody happy. And if you’re at a restaurant and your chosen bottle of red shows up at 21 degrees, don’t be afraid to ask for an ice bucket (half ice, half water) to bring it down a few degrees. If your waiter scoffs at you or tries to talk you out of this, you can rest assured that, on this point, you (now) know a lot more than they do.