When It Comes To Wine: Keep Cool

red wine on ice

As a longtime wine lover and retailer, my observation is that most red wines are served too warm and most whites too cold, which can seriously affect our enjoyment of the pleasures in the glass.

For example, some years ago my wife and I were lunching at one of our favorite San Francisco restaurants. To accompany our burger, we ordered a bottle of Marcel Lapierre’s tasty Morgon (a benchmark cru Beaujolais made from the Gamay grape), but when our server presented the wine to us, the bottle was room temperature. Rather than displaying its usual bright, fresh, brambly fruit, pepper, and earth notes, the wine was aromatically listless and dull. Dumbed-down due to being served too warm.

“Could you please bring us an ice bucket?” I asked. Although the server initially took issue with what he evidently considered to be a rube’s request, the bucket soon arrived and after a few minutes in this soothing bath the wine was much happier… and so were we.

Experienced wine drinkers know that chilling lighter reds such as that Lapierre, especially during warmer weather, is the best way to maintain the lively freshness we cherish in these wines. But it isn’t only lighter reds that can benefit from a cold soak — and this is particularly so if the flavors of a particular recipe (often tomato-based this time of year) — require a juicer red, but the weather demands something cool.

I recall reading how the Peyraud family of Bandol’s Domaine Tempier served their iconic rosé with bouillabaisse, but they were also known to serve cold bottles of young Bandol rouge, too.

  And so it was at a recent sun-drenched lunch party, where we cooked our version of Zuni’s Spicy Squid Stew with Roasted Peppers, and I chilled a bottle of Giuseppe Quintarelli’s Primofiore to accompany this intoxicatingly aromatic dish.

Although Primiofiore is Quintarelli’s lightest red, this blend of Corvina, Corvinone, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc from Italy’s Veneto region remains a relatively hearty red wine, and indeed the bright tanginess of the ice-bucket-cold red paired beautifully with the spicy flavors and texture of the stew.

At first thought, white wines may be somewhat easier. Most of us simply refrigerate them before serving, and I’m the first to admit my love of a bracingly cool bottle of Chablis or other mineral-driven white to wash down my oysters. That said, more complex whites—think premium white Burgundy or California Chardonnay, or other varieties from pretty much any region—will shut down both aromatically and on the palate if served too cold. In other words, the inverse of reds served too warm.

Perhaps our confusion about wine temperatures, especially for reds, is caused by the way the phrase “cellar temperature” morphed into the entirely different “room temperature.” These all vary, but it’s safe to assume that an average cellar temperature is 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which is probably not what you’d want your room temperature at home to be.

And that ambient temperature plays a huge role. If you take that toasty outdoor lunch party I described above and flipped it into a cold winter’s evening, I certainly wouldn’t have plunged that Primofiore into an ice bucket. Indeed, in the winter the best place for a red is often near an open window sill or a handy but safe outdoor spot. Just enough to keep it chilled but not too cold. Likewise, I chill whites down more during warm weather and generally less so when the temperature dips.

At the end of the day, the most important factor is how you like to serve your wines. A simple wine fridge needn’t be too costly and is a dandy way of ensuring the proper storage of a selection of bottles at home. Short of that, don’t be shy about placing a few bottles in the fridge to grab as needed. It’s also a nice way of enjoying a few different wines with a meal without having to finish entire bottles. Simply jam the cork back in the neck of the bottle and re-refrigerate; most good wines will be better the next day anyway.

Here’s another way to look at it. Even if it’s a bit too cool to start with, wine will also warm up in the glass, allowing the flavors and aromatics to blossom; but a wine that starts out warm will either stay that way or—if it’s a hot day—get warmer as it sits in your glass, resulting in the kind of listlessness described above.

On the subject of glassware, here’s a final thought: stemware (held by the stem, not the bowl), is preferable to tumbler-style glasses, which absorb heat from our hands. It’s not a wine snob thing, simply another practice to maximize our vinous pleasure.

Wayne Garcia is the proprietor of DIG Wine.

Illustration: Kristen Rieke Morabito