Tips & Tricks: Don’t Drink Your Reds Too Warm!

27 03 2011

This fridge wants to see your reds for a few minutes.

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.

Don't be afraid to ask for this at a restaurant, no matter what your waiter says.

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.

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5 responses

28 03 2011
S.

Interestingly enough, I have found that South African resturaunts don’t blink at the bucket of ice – and have been known to pop the red back in the fridge for a few moments if you ask kindly.

Well, that, and they are a wine region. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend you visit the Stellenbosch wine route. Gorgeous to drive and gorgeous wine to taste along the way. I am only sad that they don’t import my two favorites to Canada – Raka Wine and another name that escapes my memory at the moment.

Can’t wait for when you get around to profiling KWV / Robertson Valley reds (both of course, South African and easy to acquire in our city).

28 03 2011
petervetsch

Hi S,

I haven’t had a ton of exposure to South African reds, but I’m always looking to expand my palate, so I’ll tell you what: if you recommend a good bottle of KWV/Robertson Valley wine (or any other SA wine of your choice) in the $20-$40 range that I can pick up in Calgary somewhere, I will track it down, buy it and write about it on the site. Deal?

Peter

29 03 2011
S.

Deal 🙂

I would recommend the KWV Pinotage at $12.07 (Inglewood Wine Market) or so with a few years behind it or the Robertson Shiraz for $12.49 (Kensington Wine Market). We did actually visit KWV’s winery in Paarl which was a really neat experience as it is SA’s largest wine exporter.

Their large brandy barrels is enough to dwarf anyone, but a neat little piece of trivia is that most brandies made in South Africa are mixed with a part of KWV’s brandy.

One way to ensure that you don’t touch wine that you do buy is to leave it behind in your in-laws’ cellar – half a world away.

Btw, if you haven’t yet figured out my identify, I am G’s old dance partner. 🙂
-S.

30 03 2011
Nana

Great looking blog. Your info about chilling red wine first is interesting. I will try it the next bottle of unoaked wine I buy. One of my favorites is inexpensive Naked Grape. Without the tannin taste, I enjoy it more and my friend who is alergic to tannin is able to join me in sharing a bottle. of course nothing beats Alan’s home brew either.:)

30 03 2011
petervetsch

Hi Helen,

Thanks for reading! As far as I know, Naked Grape is “naked” due to a lack of any oak aging of its wines (meaning they likely age in stainless steel). There will still be tannins in the wines (at least the reds) from the skins, stems and seeds of the grapes which come in contact with the juice during the fermenting process. Maybe your friend is allergic to oak tannins or other compounds that oak barrel aging imparts into wine as opposed to tannins generally? Glad you found a house wine that you enjoy!

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