It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Wine is served at the wrong temperature

Let me get straight to the point: wine is too often served at the wrong temperature—not only in tasting rooms and restaurants, but also at dinner parties and social gatherings. Red wine is served too warm and white wine—which typically comes straight from the fridge—is poured too cold. For many drinkers, this “wine advisory” is yet another one of those wine affectations—like varietal-specific wine glasses, special aeration gizmos and arcane food and wine pairing rules—that drive them crazy.

I concede that specially contoured stemware for every major varietal is unnecessary for enjoying wine. I also grant that quirky aeration doodads and esoteric food/wine pairing rules are also not crucial. However, when it comes to the temperature of the wine in your glass, I believe that one’s chances for enjoyment are greatly improved when the wine’s serving temperature is such that its inherent, note-worthy traits are permitted to be on full, glorious and unencumbered display.

For those who oppose my contention—like my occasionally-famous, intermittently-retired, football-coaching brother in law Bob Toledo—permit me to lay out my thoughts. Most Americans prefer their fruit juices straight from the fridge, their water and cola drinks loaded with ice cubes and their beer catatonically cold. (Also, for those macho types who still will admit to doing it, a straight shot of freezer-stored Grey Goose vodka or Aquavit, is still the only way to enjoy that ritual.)

Why then, given those beverage palate preferences, shouldn’t wine—the second, and often the first, most important item on the dinner table—be served at its optimum, pleasure-giving temperature, which by the way is not “room temperature.”

“Room temperature” is one of those misunderstood, misinterpreted and misapplied, historical faux-verities that must be taken with a large grain of salt, or if you prefer, with a sip of chilled Chardonnay. It’s a rusty remnant from those overly-civilized, bygone days when British wine connoisseurs dined in chilly, tapestry-draped rooms that had no central heating, and woolen, multi-layered clothing and flickering fireplaces were the primary sources of warmth—other than, say, a large, post-dinner snifter of thirty year old Cognac.

Today’s thermostat-controlled dining room temperature—typically at or above 70 degrees—is not ideal for serving reds. If it were, then one would find dining room walls bedecked with designer-styled, wooden wall storage systems. So, if not room temperature, then what?

“When it comes to serving temperature, a wine should be just right,” is a compelling sentence in a Wine Spectator magazine article titled “Tips on the Perfect Serving Temperature.” Their very explicit advice: “Light dry white wines, rosés, sparkling wines” at 40° to 50°; “ Full-bodied white wines and light, fruity reds” at 50° to 60°; and 60° to 65° is the target for "Full-bodied reds and Ports." (Keep in mind that home refrigerators are typically near 35 degrees.)

Will Lyons, the Wine columnist for Wall Street Journal Europe offers “rules of thumb” in his article, ”Finding the Right Temperature for Wine”: Reds should be at 50 to 64 degrees with lighter styles at the lower end and fuller bodied ones at the upper end, and whites should be between 39 to 50 degrees—depending on body style and preference.

He additionally suggests that chilling a too-warm red in an ice bucket would be appropriate, although his fears of looking pretentious have prevented him from ever doing so. (Not so for my good friend Gary Schwenk. A few months ago at a restaurant dinner I gave him a golfer’s “fist bump” (a “high five” equivalent) to compliment him for his fearless request of an ice bucket for a too-warm Pinot Noir.)

To be sure, I’m not proposing that you to dip a thermometer into the bottle. However, definitely place that red—especially one from your kitchen, counter-top wine rack—into the fridge for about twenty or thirty minutes before pouring it. As for whites, either take them out of the fridge twenty or so minutes prior to serving, or if still too cold, cup your hands around the glass until their warmth lowers the wine’s arctic grip. Those actions should reveal what the wine really has to offer. The reds will seem fuller and fresher, and somehow even younger, while the aromatics and the flavors of the whites will seem to be more clearly delineated.

Lastly, of course, all the above presupposes that the wine in question is one worth the extra care—not a two dollar cheapie from the dusty, bottom shelf of your local supermarket. Wines like that are varietally indistinct, grape-based beverages with little character other than being pourable.  If you pour good wines--those worth an attentive sniff and a pensive savor--why not give them a chance to show their best?

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