[Editor's Note: This is a version of an article that appeared as part of the Paso Uncorked educational series coordinated by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. If you haven't checked out the other articles in the series, they are highly recommended.]
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.
You’ve probably heard the recommendation that white wines should be served chilled, and reds at room temperature. Both recommendations can get you into trouble. And it should be no surprise. Serve a wine too cold and its flavors are muted, its texture thinned, and its aromatics deadened. Serve one too warm and it tastes heavy and alcoholic. But never fear; it’s not that hard to get it right.
The details on whites
White wines should be served somewhere between cool and cold, depending on the wine. Something more like cool (think 55°- 60°F) is appropriate for white wines that are the richest and the 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 – you’re probably best off at cellar temperature. Wines with higher acidity and lighter body – think Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Albarino, or most dry rosés – are generally best a bit colder (say, 50°). But here too, remember that “a bit colder” shouldn’t mean “straight out of the fridge”. A white wine that’s too cold will typically show very little other than a sake-like neutrality and some acidity when it’s served at 40°.
The details on reds
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.
For most red wines, cellar temperature (around 60°) will do you well. Some lighter reds can even be delightful chilled even a little further (think Beaujolais). Just make sure that these wines are fruit-dominant. Wines with more body, oak and texture need to be a touch warmer to show properly, but actually have a narrower optimal range, as they can quickly turn heavy above about 75°.
A modest proposal
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, our partners at Beaucastel 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.
The fine tuning
Once you have the wine in your glass, you haven’t lost all control. If the wine is a little cold, cup the bowl of the wine glass in your hands and swirl gently, and you can raise the wine a critical few degrees in less than a minute. (Glass is a great conductor of temperature, and a lousy insulator). For the same reason, if the wine is on the warm side, make sure to keep your fingers on the stem rather than the bowl. And as a last resort, if it’s just too warm to enjoy, don’t feel too bad about dropping an ice cube in your glass, swirling it for a few seconds, and then removing it. You won’t have diluted the wine much, and you can drop the temperature several degrees in a few seconds. Of course, you’d do better to get the temperature right before hand, which is why you shouldn’t be shy about requesting that ice bucket. Even if the wine in question is red.