There’s the old adage that you should chill white wine and serve red wine slightly warm – but is that really the best way? The advice of Ursula Hermacinski, the former Christie’s wine auctioneer is: “Twenty minutes before dinner, you take the white wine out of the fridge, and put the red wine in.” Why?
It’s not just the taste of wine, a lot of the enjoyment from drinking wine involves its aroma. Taste has just four aspects – sweet, sour, salty, acid and umami (savoury). The nose does the rest. Vapours are created as wine warms up, so the wine needs to be a few degrees below its ideal drinking temperature for this to work.
People tend to serve white wines too cold and red wines too warm. Room Temperature is rarely ‘wine drinking temperature’ – clearly it depends where you are and what time of the year it is – if you’re in the middle of a South African summer, tepid Chardonnay probably isn’t high on your wish list!
A wine served a little too cold or a little too warm can lose its ‘character’ and aroma because the temperature at which a wine is served has a profound effect on how it smells and tastes. Different styles of wine work better at different temperatures to enhance their good points and try to mask any faults.
Warmth makes white wines taste dull so (unless you’re drinking during a Scandinavian winter) you should probably chill it. Most domestic refrigerators maintain their internal environment at about 4ºC, which is too cold for most white wines. Champagne and dry white wines of quality are best served at a temperature between 8ºC and 10ºC so an hour or so in the fridge before serving is fine. Excelsior Sauvignon Blanc works well at 6- 8ºC and Excelsior Chardonnay and Viognier slightly warmer at 8-12ºC.
A trick to mask low -quality white wine or sparkling wine is to serve it much colder (4ºC to 8ºC) when you won’t be able to pick up the faults in the wine so easily – it will be refreshing and pretty tasteless. The lower the temperature, the fewer volatile flavour compounds will evaporate from the wine in the glass and, at a serving temperature of about 8ºC, all but the most aromatic wines appear to have very little smell.
Temperature also has an observable effect on wines containing carbon dioxide. The higher the temperature, the more gas is released, which means that fizzy wines can be unpleasantly frothy at about 18ºC. Sparkling wines are generally best served well chilled.
Red wines can often benefit from a little chilling as many fine red wines work well at 14ºC to 18ºC – a cooler temperature than most modern houses but probably ‘room temperature’ in years gone by! Beware though, the lower the temperature, the more sensitive the palate to tannins and bitterness. Tannic or bitter wines such as many Italian red wines and any young red designed for ageing should be served relatively warm. Excelsior red wines are idea drunk at between 16- 18ºC but in the heat of an African summer you may want to serve it slightly cooler as it warms rapidly in the glass.
The higher the temperature, the more easily the volatile flavour compounds evaporate. Serve complex and mature wines relatively warm to maximize the impact of a wine’s aroma, about 16 – 18ºC. But don’t overdo it, at temperatures over 20ºC the alcohol can begin to evaporate so markedly that it unbalances the wine. And don’t be tempted to accelerate the ‘warming’ process by placing the wine near radiators; it may well end up tasting stewed and soupy.
The higher the temperature, the more sensitive is the palate to sweetness, so it makes sense to serve sweet wines at about 12ºC. For the same reason, medium dry wines served with savoury food will probably taste dry if served well chilled. In general, chill sweet wines.
If uncertain about serving temperature, err on the side of caution and serve the wine a little too cold. It will soon warm up in the glass.
Sources and further reading: