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Intemperate Consumption: Play it Cool

Craig Camp
Friday, June 18, 2004

THE TABLE OVERLOOKS the frozen river, but it is warm and cozy by the fireplace at this local Italian restaurant with high aspirations unfulfilled. I order a bottle of Valpolicella as a safe choice from the spare wine list and it arrives at our table slightly colder than the river. “Do you happen to have one not quite so cold?” I ask with little hope.

After a long wait our waitress returns to the table with another bottle of Valpolicella. This one is almost hot to the touch apparently having been stored in a rack by the roaring fire. In a fit of inspiration I take both bottles and ask for a decanter. Upon its arrival I pour both bottles into the decanter under the confused gaze of the waitress. Once again the sum of two parts made a greater whole: the wine was now at perfect serving temperature.

Welcome to America, the land of the free, where we serve our red wines too warm, our white wines too cold and, though it makes me blue, dry rosé wines not at all.

There are few greater pleasures than drinking a two-year-old Napa Cabernet sporting 14.5% alcohol at 80°F -- making it a kind of very expensive warm tannic, raspberry alcohol tea. We are kinder to Lipton’s in the summer than we are to Screaming Eagle -- at least the Lipton’s gets a little ice.

We spend a fortune on Reidel glasses, hard-to-get wines, wine cellars, wine books, magazines and newsletters and all the accoutrements of the wine scene, but more often than not serve (or are served) our wines at the wrong temperature. This is a mistake that mars our enjoyment of a wine much more than the differences between Reidel and Spiegelau or if the wine has been decanted for the right number of hours.

Restaurants are often the worst offenders with red wines stored in warm storage rooms or behind the bar and with white wines stored in refrigerators with the appropriate brand name, Sub-Zero. Just take a look at the White Burgundies full of tartrate crystals in the ice-cold cooler at your favorite national steak chain. Apparently the restaurant management did not agree with the winemaker’s decision not to cold-stabilize the tartaric acid out of their wines. Worse yet are the ice bucket battles all too often won by busboys trained with military precision to keep the ice water glasses full and the white wine bottles in the bucket. The Lettuce Entertain You restaurant chain must put their floor staff through an intense brainwashing in this regard as they are obsessed with keeping your glass filled to the absolute brim with ice water and your white wine several degrees colder than your water. I often feel like a goalie facing a power-play as the busboys circle my table with their eyes on my bottle of white wine that I have already removed from the bucket several times.

There is one word to think of when it comes to the correct serving temperature for wines: cool. The range for enjoyment runs only from very cool to cool -- warm and ice cold don’t fit into the picture. There are exceptions to this rule of course. For example lousy wines (like lousy beers) should be served as cold as technology permits so that your palate is slightly anesthetized to the experience of drinking them. Sparking wines are served the coldest of all, but once again great sparkling wines should not be served at tooth-cracking temperatures. Why spend all that money on a Krug only to kill the flavor?

Proper serving temperatures would fall generally into these guidelines:

  • Great red wines: just over 60°F (about 17°C)
  • Young, simple fruity fresh reds: just over 55°F (about 14°C)
  • Great white wines, dry rosés: around 50°F or a bit more. (about 12°C)
  • Zesty fresh young white wines, sparkling wines and white dessert wines: about 45°F (about 8°C)
  • White Zinfandel: about 20°F (about -7°C) -- love those White Zin-sicles

It seems “room temperature” would mean a pretty chilly room.

I have seen a special wine glass with a thermometer included in the stem: please shoot me if I buy one of those. Thermometers are not required, just good common sense. The flavor of wine is based on fruit and those flavors are enhanced by a cool serving temperature. The fruitier the wine the cooler you serve it. Thirty minutes in a normal refrigerator for your red wines is all that is usually required on warm days. For your best white wines the situation reverses itself: during cold weather thirty minutes out of the refrigerator before serving will open the flavors dramatically.

What temperature does to the taste of wine is simple: too much cold deadens the taste. Try your favorite big Barolo ice cold and you will discover the flavor has disappeared leaving only tannin and alcohol. Too much heat volatizes the alcohol and other components making the wine seem harsh and out of balance. As you pass 70°F (21°C) the alcohol starts to volatize faster and faster and alters the aromatics of the wine -- for the worse. For this reason it is always better to err on the cool side as the wine will normally warm up a bit in the glass or decanter unless you’re tailgating in December in Minneapolis.

Hot weather and the pleasures of outdoor summer dining are a bit of a problem when it comes to wine temperature. At home we eat in the garden both for lunch and dinner and, as the temperature runs in the high eighties almost every day during the summer, it gets harder and less enjoyable to serve big wines.

The other day I put two bottles of Barbaresco in the refrigerator thirty minutes before lunch. The first glass was perfect, but before I could finish the glass it was already too warm and what was an elegant, complex wine dissolved into a thin, bitter and hot wine in just twenty minutes. Ice buckets help keep your big reds cool enough, but this hot and cold temperature rollercoaster takes its toll on big tannic red wines. Sometimes matching the weather is just as important as matching the food. Hot days just don’t go well with big wines: red or white.

This fortunately is not a problem because you don’t have to be a big wine to be delicious and you don’t have to be pink or white to take a chill. There are many excellent reds that thrive on more than a little coolness no matter what the time of year. The key in finding interesting reds that can stand the heat of summer is in finding wines with lower alcohol levels, little oak, restrained tannins and a fresh acidity. A light chill brings out the lovely fruit of these wines and only enhances their refined balance. The ultimate example of a wine with these attributes, yet still offering real complexity, may be the stunning Domaine des Terres Dorées Beaujolais imported by Louis/Dressner, a wine so delicate, yet so complex it is impossible to put into words, so I recommend putting it into your mouth as often as possible. Other regions producing such wines include: red Loire wines like Clos Roche Blanche, Touraine Gamay (Louis/Dressner); fruity Oregon Pinot Noir like Benton-Lane; villages Burgundy like Côte de Beaune Villages from Drouhin, Valpolicella like Corte St. Alda Ca’Fiui (Europvin) and the lusciously spicy 2003 Dolcetto wines now being released like those from Vietti, Marcarini, Poderi Colla, Sottimano and Prunotto.

Warning: Once your palate becomes tuned to these svelte wines you may find yourself drinking them no matter what the weather.

Often, for summer meals, both the temperature and the types of foods served make rosé the best choice of all. However finding good rosé can be a problem. Because of the success of the often sticky-sweet White Zinfandel, the reputation of pink wines has taken a beating, but they don’t call White Zin a rosé for a reason. Top dry rosé wines come from many countries including: France -- Tavel, Lirac, Bandol, Provence; Italy -- Cerasuolo Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Bardolino Chiaretto; Spain -- Rioja, Navarra and a smattering of good dry pink wines are made by a handful of courageous (or hard-headed) producers in the United States including: Iron Horse Rosato di Sangiovese, Bonny Doon Vin Gris di Cigar and Saintsbury Vincent Vin Gris.

The most exciting rosé I have tasted in some time comes from Torre Quarto, an excellent estate in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. Their 2003 Guappo (87 pts. -$14) is about as delicious to drink as a pink wine can get. This is a fantastic rosato, just packed with flavor and freshness. The color is a radiant, bright light-scarlet and the aromas are filled with bittersweet cherries and strawberries. The full-bodied fruit flavors continue across the palate into the long, rich and lusciously fruity, but crisply dry finish. This is no simple light wine, but a dry rosato with real depth and complexity and it is my top choice this summer for burgers, brats and picnic foods. A blend of uva di troia, primitivo, sangiovese and montepulciano, Torre Quarto Guappo Rosato is imported by Montecastelli Selections.

The temperature inside and outside the glass both dramatically affect the way you perceive and enjoy a wine. To really appreciate fine wine both you and the wine have to be cool.