Talkin’ Temperature

My roommate puts red wine in the refrigerator. I thought red wine is supposed to be served at room temperature. Which one of us is right?

It’s tricky, but you both are.

Wine, whether it’s red, white, rose, or sparking, should be served at a temperature that fully expresses its aromas, flavors, and structure. That means that different wines should be served at different temperatures.

Here’s where you’re right: There is an old adage that red wine should be served at room temperature. And red wines are generally served at a warmer temperature than white, rose, and sparkling wines. But what exactly is “room temperature?” Everybody has a different idea of what that is.

Here’s where your roommate is right: Back when the whole “room temperature” thing actually began, which was before we had central heating, homes were much cooler than they are today. So red wine would be served cooler than what we think of today as room temperature. 

So how do you know what’s the best temperature to serve your wine?

I say drink wine at whatever temperature you like. Everybody’s tastes are different. But if you really want to bring out the best in a wine, serving it at the optimal temperature is the way to go. A basic rule of thumb is reds are served warmer than whites and the fuller-bodied the wine is, the warmer the serving temperature, and the lighter-bodied and higher acidity of the wine, the cooler you’ll want it. So your Merlot will be slightly chilled, while your Sauvignon Blanc will be well chilled.

Here’s a handy chart I use:

* White wines with oak aging should be closer to 55; unoaked whites should be closer to 50.

According to this guide and the old standard, “room temperature” is a cool 54-65 degrees. Brrrr! Now do you see why simply saying “serve reds at room temperature” doesn’t really give the full picture?

If you’re not convinced of the effect that temperature has on wine, try this experiment: Chill a bottle of red wine so that it is cooler than what the chart recommends. Then open it and pour yourself a glass. Sniff it and make a note of the aromas and how pronounced they are (or aren’t.) Take a sip and note the flavors and how intense they are (or not.) Then hold the wine glass for about five minutes, cupping it in your hand (not holding the stem) so that your hand warms it up a bit. Sniff and sip again. Notice any difference? Cup the glass in your hand again for about five to ten minutes this time. Warm it up even more. Again, sniff and sip. Did any of those flavors get more intense? Did they diminish?

Experimenting like this is not only a fun way to learn how a wine tastes at different temperatures, it’s also a great way to start to develop a sense of what you like best. 

So how long should you chill a bottle to get it to the right temperature? Let’s add a third column to the chart.

** Most refrigerators are set at approximately 37 degrees. (The US Food & Drug Administration recommends staying under 40 degrees. Most food safety experts say you should stay between 35 and 38.) You probably won’t need to change your chilling time if your refrigerator isn’t right at 37, unless you go outside the recommended 35 to 38.

If you’re short on time, you’ve got a couple alternatives for quickly chilling a bottle:

  • Put it in the freezer. Shoot for roughly a quarter of the time you would have it in the refrigerator. If you do this, I recommend setting a timer. I once put a bottle of Pinot Grigio in the freezer, then got distracted and forgot about it. The next day I had a slushy mess in my freezer because the water content of the wine expanded as it began to freeze and pushed the cork out, leaving me with a Pinot Grigio disaster to clean up.
  • Place the bottle in a large bowl or ice bucket filled with ice water…and salt. The salt lowers the freezing point of water, which makes the ice melt (that’s why salt is used in the winter on roads when they get icy) and the water gets colder. That will make the bottle get cooler faster. Try about 15-20 minutes for whites and 8-10 minutes for reds.

Also note, if you’ve had a bottle of wine (even white or rose) in the refrigerator for a few days, you’ll want to take it out and let it warm up for a while before you serve it.

What should you do if you’re served a wine at the wrong temperature?

First, don’t be a jerk, especially if you’re at somebody’s home. Not everyone knows about wine temperature. And nobody likes a wine snob. If you’re at a restaurant or bar, chances are you’ll have one of two things happen: either you’ll get a red wine that’s too warm or a white wine that’s too cold. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do about the red. For the white, you can always do the “cup the wine glass with your hand” to warm it. (Watch for a future post on what to do in a restaurant when the wine you get isn’t “right.”)

Bottom line: When it comes to serving temperature, I encourage you to experiment and find what you like best. But chances are, because of the science of wine, you’ll generally like wines best when they are served at the recommended temps. (This is a theme that will reoccur, we’ll find, multiple times.)

What do you think? Feel free to add your two cents in the comments.

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