Liquids: Wine Temperature

You’re going to think I’m crazy—perhaps you already do if you read this column regularly—but I need to share a theory with you that could forever change the way you taste wine. It will also forever change the way you buy wine, both in the wine shop and, more important, at bars and restaurants. But first I need to ask you to do one very critical thing, and that is to forget everything you’ve ever heard about proper wine temperature. Because if you think red wine should be served at room temperature, you’ve been misled. And while the word “misled” may sound innocent enough, my theory is that this misconception is tragic. Yes, tragic. Let me explain.

Ever since my parents took out a third mortgage to send me to college in Rome 15 years ago, I realized that the way we Americans drink wine and the way Europeans drink wine is vastly different. I could write a book on the philosophical differences that separate us from them—and my thesis would be that wine in Europe is a condiment on the table, while wine in America is a revered alcoholic beverage. But on a far more practical level I noticed that the temperature of the wine, both red and white, was different. In Rome, the wine we were served in the cafeteria—and just about everywhere else—was fresco, which translates as “fresh” but really means “cool.” It was, indeed, cool that we got to drink wine with meals every day, but the temperature of the red wine in particular reminded me of the cold jug wines my grandfathers poured on the Sundays of my childhood. This confused me, because growing up I had learned that red wine drunk out-of-the-fridge cold was, in a word, wrong. How many times have you heard that red wine should be served at room temperature? And that white wine should be served ice cold?

Herein lies my theory: Somewhere between the Old World and the New, a catastrophic translation error took place that changed the language of wine temperature. If this sounds implausible, consider another gastronomic translation error: The Italian word ragu, which means “meat sauce,” became, in English, “gravy.” Technically, “gravy” is correct, but the great gravy-versus-sauce debate could drive many a nonna to drink warm wine. Which brings us back to my point: Most of us drink wine at the wrong temperature, and for those of you who don’t even like wine, the reason could have everything to do with not liking the temperature.

What’s the big deal? I’ll tell you what the big deal is: When white wine is drunk too cold—say, just out of the fridge—the flavor is suppressed. And when red wine is drunk too warm—say, at room temperature, or 72 degrees Fahrenheit—it tastes way, way out of balance. What’s the right temperature? For whites it’s between 41 and 48 degrees; for reds, between 60 and 65. Too cold for whites is the average refrigerator temperature of 35 degrees; too warm for reds, anything over 65. If these subtle increments sound too technical to make a difference, consider how you feel with even the slightest fever. A few degrees do make all the difference.

But don’t just take my word for it. Take it from another expert, Ed McCarthy, coauthor (with his wife, master of wine Mary Ewing-Mulligan) of Wine for Dummies, whose updated third edition appears this month. McCarthy thinks the problem with “room temperature” is interpretation. “I don’t think people know what ‘room temperature’ means,” he says, adding, “We’re talking room temperature in a non–centrally heated room.”

McCarthy says red wine drunk warmer than 65 degrees “starts to get volatile; the alcohol comes out, and often it tastes flabby. It tastes hot in the mouth and is just not enjoyable anymore.” I’ll drink to that. And if you’d like to join me, you can start by helping to enlighten your drinking buddies the next time you pull a cork.

Josh Wesson, cofounder of Best Cellars, put it best recently at his “Perfect Picnic Wines” seminar at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen, Colorado. “Nothing tastes good at ambient temperature,” he said, “not even water, and especially wine, which above 72 degrees breaks down into separate components: alcohol, fruit, tannin, and acid.”

It doesn’t take much effort to get a wine to the right temperature without buying a fancy wine cave. If you store white wine in the refrigerator, take it out 20 minutes before you want to pour it. To cool down reds (or room-temperature whites), all you need is an ice bucket filled half with ice and half with water. If you’re in a hurry, throw in a cup of salt—it’ll chill faster. Typically, I chill my reds for about 10 minutes in an ice bath; that’s all it takes.

You could also help by enlightening bartenders and waiters wherever you go. There’s nothing more disappointing than ordering a glass of red wine at a bar and having it served as hot as the halogen lights under which it sat for hours. Same goes for whole bottles stored in the dining room as part of the artwork. What to do? “Frankly, if it’s too warm, I just don’t take it,” McCarthy says. “Americans in general are not very good about turning things back, especially wines, maybe because we think it’s rude. I think it’s rude to be served warm red wine in a good restaurant. It’s their responsibility to serve me wine at the right temperature—it’s not my responsibility to take care of their wine.” (McCarthy also recommends buying wine for home consumption only in stores with temperature-controlled storage. “Heat is the worst enemy of wine,” he warns. “It will age the wine too rapidly, and the wine will eventually become oxidized.” The worst season for buying wine is right about now, because many bottles could have been simmering in storage all summer long.)

If I’m unhappy with the temperature of a wine served in a restaurant, I ask for an ice bucket to be brought to my table. And if I’m sitting at the bar, I ask the bartender to put a fresh bottle of the red I want by the glass on ice for about ten minutes while I sip something colder. Just remember, you have nothing to lose by asking, and everything to gain: fresh fruit flavor, balanced acidity, moderated tannin (that puckery feeling you get in reds), and overall refreshment. After all, especially during this hottest month of the year, shouldn’t red wine be refreshing? Yes, refreshing—perhaps that’s an even better translation for fresco.