Guitar Aficionado

The Oeno File: A Question of Degree

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If you regularly purchase wine online and prefer to save a few bucks by shipping via ground, you’ve probably become an amateur weather watcher who closely monitors temperatures across the country to determine the ideal window for shipping your wines. While most retailers and wineries will store bottles free of charge until safe shipping conditions prevail, there are a few exceptions who either don’t seem to care and will ship anytime of year or care seemingly too much and will refuse to release your precious purchases until those increasingly rare periods (thanks to global warming, climate change, or abnormal weather patterns) when temperatures across the entire nation are projected to hover between 50 to 70 degrees for at least an entire week.

Most dedicated wine connoisseurs and collectors have also invested in wine storage refrigerators or dedicated storage cellars, where they instantly transfer their shipments upon arrival and where they’ll reside for months, years, or even decades in consistent conditions until the bottles are opened and consumed. The truly dedicated have separate units or sections where they can segregate red, white, and sparkling wines and store each at different temperatures.

Yet, although most wine collectors and connoisseurs are obsessive about wine temperatures up until the moment they crack open the cork, only a few pay proper attention to serving temperature, which may actually be the most important temperature consideration of all. There is a tendency for most consumers to drink wine at temperatures that are too hot (for reds) or too cold (for white and sparkling wines) to truly enjoy a wine at its best. Part of the problem is that guidelines for serving temperature have historically been rather vague, suggesting for example that red wines should be served at “room temperature” and white wines should merely be chilled.

In today’s average heated and air-conditioned environments, “room temperature” generally means a range between 68 to 74 degrees. However, the “hottest” ideal serving temperature for any wine (generally robust reds or Port wines) is 65 degrees. “Chilled”—at least as it seems to be defined in modern American vernacular—is generally just a few degrees above freezing in a range of 34 to 40 degrees. Ideally, even the lightest white wines should not be chilled below 45 degrees, and many full-bodied whites like Chardonnay and Sémillon fare better when served around 50 degrees, as do most Rosé wines and aged vintage Champagne. I personally even prefer medium-body whites like Rieslings from Alsace and Vouvray served around 50 degrees as the warmer temperatures bring out the subtle minerality and enhance complexity.

Light red wines like Beaujolais, Blaufränkisch, and Nebbiolo fare quite well at temperatures that are colder than most reds are commonly served. The ideal temperature for these wines is 55 degrees, although I’ve enjoyed some young Beaujolais Cru and fruity Nebbiolo wines at slightly cooler temps. Pinot Noir and Burgundy wines fare the best between 55 to 60 degrees (the heavier the wine, the higher the temperature), as do higher quality aged wines made from the Nebbiolo grape like Barolo and Barbaresco. Bold red wines such as Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petite Sirah, and Syrah (particularly New World varieties) seem to be at their best between 60 to 65 degrees, although wines with notable “heat” from excess alcohol often taste better at even lower temps.

Since the ideal storage temperature for all wines is within a few degrees above or below 55 degrees, most white wines need only a brief one-hour visit to the kitchen refrigerator to reach ideal serving temperatures, or you can chill a bottle almost instantly by inserting it into a bucket of ice, water, and salt and vigorously rotating it for a few minutes. Pinot Noir and Burgundy can be served directly from the cellar, while bigger red wines can (and should) rest in a decanter for 30 minutes to an hour before serving to allow the temperature to rise gradually to an ideal serving range.