If I'm in a restaurant and ask for an ice bucket, you're much more likely to see a bottle of red on the table (and a surprised server) than you are to see a white. And I'm likely to wave away the proffered ice bucket with most of my whites, with the possible exception of something sparkling. An ice bucket for my red wine? And a white let to sit on the table and warm up? Absolutely.
Some of my thoughts on this were brought into focus by an interesting conversation I had with Richard Dean, the Sommelier at San Francisco's Campton Place, as we were finishing up a wonderful wine dinner last week. He had featured several Tablas Creek wines, all of them paired expertly, and served -- not a given -- at exactly the right temperature to offer maximum enjoyment. I complimented him on this, and Richard (who has been pouring our 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc by the glass for several months) remarked that a regular customer of Tablas Creek had commented to him that the wine showed best when it had warmed up a bit. Richard wasn't a stranger to this phenomenon, but moved the wine from the refrigerator where they store most of their whites to the cellar where they store their reds, and was amazed to see how many more compliments he started receiving on the wine.
I was not surprised.
Serve a wine too cold and the flavors are thinned and the aromatics deadened. Serve one too warm and it tastes heavy and alcoholic. And serving temperature matters most to the white wines that are richest and most complex. Within that category -- which includes powerfully built whites like Chardonnay, Semillon, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Gris, as well as most of the Rhone whites -- the wines that have the highest acidity hold up best to being served very cold, while those that tend to be broader and richer, and lower in acid, can show very little other than a sake-like creaminess when they're served straight out of the fridge.
We've noticed this in our own blending trials. Roussanne, which at cellar temperature is the richest and most complex white we make, shuts down dramatically when it's served right out of the fridge. And it does have an impact out in the market; I've noticed wildly divergent notes on CellarTracker about our Roussanne that I think are directly attributable to people tasting it at different temperatures. Grenache Blanc, in contrast, shows quite nicely at low temperatures, in part because of its higher acidity and more traditional fruit flavors. One benefit of blending Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc into Roussanne -- as we do in our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc -- is that the blended wine shows much better than a straight Roussanne would at the cold temperatures at which it is often served in restaurants. I still think it's important to serve the wine warmer, or at least let it warm up in your glass, but it gives us a fighting chance.
For reds, you often hear the recommendation that red wines should be served at "room temperature". That's all well and good, but whose room are we speaking about? A beach house in Santa Monica? An air-conditioned Manhattan apartment? A Scottish castle? What may have been normal room temperature (say, 65 degrees) fifty years ago in the United Kingdom, whence many of these wine maxims originate, is likely ten degrees cooler than your average American house. And many restaurants are warmer still, heated by the massed diners and the kitchen burners. Most high-end restaurants are now (happily) keeping their wines in a temperature-controlled cellar, but I still see too many restaurants with wines in bins or on racks on the walls, and even the ones with good cellars aren't likely using them for their by-the-glass wines.
Red wines aren't the same, either, as they were decades ago when the "room temperature" recommendation gained popularity. Most red wines are riper, denser, and higher in alcohol than they were a generation ago, and while these wines can have a lovely richness when they're served cool, warmer temperatures emphasize their more unpleasant aspects, making them seem overweight, alcoholic, and sweet.
Thankfully, it's not that hard to make sure your wines are served at the right temperature. A typical wine cellar is kept in the upper 50s or lower 60s. That's a great starting point for both reds and whites. (And, as a point of reference, at Beaucastel they recommend that you serve all their wines, red and whites, at roughly 60 degrees.) If you're serving a sparkling, sweeter or lighter-bodied white, or a rosé, stick the bottle in the fridge for half an hour before you're going to open it, and figure you'll serve it around 50 degrees, and it will warm up a bit in the glass. If you're serving a red, take it out of that same cellar maybe a half an hour before you open it, or less if your room is warm and the wine will warm up significantly in the glass. But starting with the red wine too warm doesn't leave you many good options, as it's unlikely to cool off once it's poured.
But if you get an over-warm red wine when you're eating out, don't be shy about requesting that ice bucket. Hey, it's better than asking for an ice cube, right?