By David White
Most of the nation is still recovering from a brutal heat wave that shattered thousands of records and forced millions to stay indoors and crank up the air conditioning. The impact of such weather on wine was on full effect last weekend, when I attended an outdoor party on a 100-degree day.
I arrived to the event a few hours early, as my friend had asked if I could bring a few cases of wine. When I pulled in, I was thrilled to spot the caterer, who was already filling large coolers with ice.
She quickly took the white wines and threw them in the coolers. The reds, though, remained on a table, baking under the hot sun. So I asked how I could help, offering to put the reds in a refrigerator or toss them in a different cooler.
She looked at me like I was insane.
“I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve never heard of chilling reds,” she declared, incredulously.
I politely noted the sweltering heat, and suggested that guests would prefer cool wine — which would quickly warm once poured — to wine that had been sitting in the hot sun all day.
“Well, you’re the expert,” she answered, proceeding to put the reds on ice. “But I’ve always been told that red wines are served at room temperature.”
And there it was, the world’s most pervasive wine myth. The notion that reds should be served at room temperature is why most people — and even most bars, restaurants, and caterers — serve red wines too warm.
Before the advent of thermostats, homes were much cooler than they are today. So serving red wine at “room temperature” made sense — it still made for a refreshing beverage. Today, most Americans keep their homes at about 72 degrees. At this temperature, alcohol is more obvious, which distorts the aromas and flavors of a wine. Warm wines generally seem rough, unstructured, and alcoholic. These traits only get worse as a wine heats up.
Conversely, most white wines are consumed when they’re too cold. Most consumers serve whites straight from the refrigerator, and most restaurants serve them straight from an ice bucket. Serving any wine at such low temperatures will mask its flavors.
Fortunately, you don’t need a fancy wine refrigerator to serve wine at its optimal temperature.
If you’re drinking a red wine, pop it in the fridge for 20-30 minutes. If you’re drinking a white wine, pull it out of the fridge about 20-30 minutes before you’re going to drink it.
As wine critic Bill Ward recently explained, “Basically, all wine should be chilled, but not too much, and served between 43 degrees (sweet or crisp whites, bubbles) and 65 degrees (hearty reds). Richer whites (Chardonnay) and lighter reds (Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cabernet Franc) fall in between.”
Temperature doesn’t just matter when serving wine, it also matters when storing it.
If you’re looking to hold onto a special bottle for a long time, most experts agree that it should be stored somewhere cool and dark — wine cellars are typically kept at about 55 degrees. This allows a wine to develop slowly and predictably, hopefully becoming more complex and interesting over time. Wines stored at higher temperatures will age more quickly and can develop off flavors and aromas.
It’s also worth noting that wine is perishable and can spoil very quickly when exposed to extreme heat. This was another concern of mine last weekend.
Like ice cream, wine can be destroyed when left outside — or even worse, in a car — on a hot summer day. If a wine is just slightly “cooked,” the damage will be hard to perceive — it will just seem a bit dull. When a wine is more noticeably heat-damaged, it’s marked by aromas of stewed fruit and burnt sugar. When heat damage is severe, the wine will expand inside the bottle — pushing out the cork and breaking its seal, thus spoiling the wine by exposing it to too much oxygen.
Already, it looks like this might be the hottest summer in history. So keep cool. And don’t forget to chill your wines.
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