Serving Temperature – What’s Ideal For My Wine?
“What’s the ideal serving temperature for my wine?” is one of the questions I get asked often. That’s usually followed up with “and what’s the best way to achieve it?”
Both questions are important because the smell and taste of any wine are dependent on serving temperature. Consequently, getting that right heightens drinking pleasure immensely. Every wine has it’s Goldilocks zone.
I’ve seen guidance stating “serve at room temperature”. To be kind, this is of no value. It originated in past times when houses were typically draughty, cold and heated by fireplaces. They were undoubtedly cooler than modern homes, where central heating and insulation gives a room temperature of around 23 °C, which is far too warm for wine. Fortunately, the principles for serving temperature are simple, thanks to a combination of physics and human physiology:
- The colder the wine, the less it will smell and taste, and vice-versa;
- Cool temperatures emphasise acidity and tannin, while warmer temperatures minimise them;
- It’s much easier to warm a wine up than chill a wine down.
These apply to any wine, regardless of expense or provenance. Hence, you can maximise the enjoyment of cheap wine or conversely, spoil an expensive one.
What follows are guidelines for different wine styles, not rules. If you prefer your wines served differently to that suggested here, that’s ok!
The more wine is naturally aromatic, the cooler it can be served. Aromatic whites include Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat. Treat Rosés like white wine. Aromatic reds could include lighter examples of Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Pinot Noir.
Sparkling wines are usually better at low temperatures because cooling enhances acidity, and it also slows down the release of carbon dioxide bubbles. In turn, this reduces frothing and means the bubbles last longer. However, I also prefer Prestige and Vintage Champagne with only a light chill, to do justice to the expected nuances of aromas and flavours.
Full-bodied or oaked whites have bigger flavour molecules that are less volatile; so they can be served warmer. Hence, White Burgundy for me sings best at about 14 °C. Conversely, flabby wine will taste markedly better by chilling it to enhance the acidity.
Full-bodied and/or young reds contain bigger molecules, including tannins. Hence they are frequently bitter and tannic when served too cool. These are generally much improved by serving them warmer. Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah/Shiraz and Malbec are all examples. However, above 20 °C aromas and alcohol are lost to evaporation, so 18 °C is a useful upper limit.
Most sweet wines benefit from being chilled, which balances acidity and sweetness.
Best keep it simple
Let’s not over-complicate the subject. Below is an easy rough guide, (in .jpg format, so it’s easy to copy and keep). Please note that these are guidelines rather than rules, as every wine and wine-drinker is unique! More importantly, you are the arbiter and enjoying wine is always about personal taste.
If in doubt, serve the wine on the cooler side of its normal zone and then allow it to warm up in the glass naturally. You can encourage this by cupping your hands around the glass, and so discover the changes in flavours as the wine warms, with new nuances of aroma and flavour potentially exposed.
So having established some rough serving temperatures, there are various ways of achieving them, both good and bad.
Because water conducts heat more efficiently than air, methods that employ water are frequently the quickest and the most successful.
What about a thermometer? It’s not essential, as there’s no need for super-accuracy. I have one, but these days like most wine gadgets it collects dust in the kitchen drawer. If you decide to buy one, then choose the traditional thermometer type. Those thermometers based on metal bands that fit around the bottle rarely fit properly, so tend to be inaccurate.
Ice Bucket. The classic rapid chill. Tip: you don’t need much ice as it’s the cold water that is important. Ensure the immersion of most of the bottle.
Fridge. Generally safe, but much more time is necessary because it relies on air temperature. Similarly, an electric cool-box may be useful for portability. A Wine Cabinet is essentially a specialist fridge, sometimes with separate zones to keep wines at their optimal temperature. They are arguably more about long-term storage than serving temperature.
Gel wrap. Inexpensive and efficient accessory. Check it can fit different sized bottles, including Champagne. Also, look for one that can also warm wines.
Doorstep. In the UK this is often successful, though it relies on air temperature unless it has snowed. Envious neighbours may ask you who your milkman is.
River/sea. Is there a better way for a summer picnic? Ensure the bottle is tethered securely, leaving the cork in or screwcap on!
Ice cubes in your glass. The main problem is that the wine becomes diluted as the ice melts.
Corkcicle. A gel stick kept in the freezer until needed then inserted into an open bottle of wine to chill it. Useless, because it displaces the wine out of the bottle. As described by Archimedes in 250BC.
Use an ice bucket, but fill it with lukewarm (not hot or boiling) water, for gentle but rapid warming.
Gel wrap. Warm with lukewarm water only.
Bad methods – avoid!
Microwave. Of all the daft wine advice on the internet, this is possibly the most stupid. You’ll cook the wine in seconds. And bottles with screwcaps, metal closures or foil will spark! Champagne can explode! See here.
Open fire, radiator, direct sunshine, hot kitchen. These are all sure-fire ways to ruin a wine.
Freezer. I learnt my lesson the hard way by freezing a Grand Cru Chablis and forgetting about it. An expensive mistake because water expands as it freezes. The bottle exploded, leaving shards of glass and frozen Alcopop!
Dull wines? Serving temperature is a great way to improve them, but can’t improve faulty wine. Hence, for boring whites, chill them senseless. Turn dull reds into mulled wine by simmering in a pan with sugar and spices.
I hope you find this article about serving temperature interesting and useful! For more on how we taste wine, please see here.