Updated: Dec 9, 2020
We've all been there. You're out at a moderately-priced local restaurant perusing the wine list. It's a warm evening, and you're even beginning to sweat a little at the restaurant, but the sun is setting, so you'll get over it. It should cool down soon. What wine should you order? It looks like the options are California Pinot Noir or Zinfandel. You go with the Zin. The wine gets plucked from a rack that has been sitting in the sun near the front of the restaurant. If you had to guess, it's probably at a serving temperature of 78 degrees. It gets delivered to your table. The young waiter fiddles with the cork, pops it open, and splashes a little in your glass. You put it to your lips. This baby is COMING IN HOT! You check the bottle. 15.5% alcohol. This is a no-win situation. Call me crazy, but I would be asking for an ice bucket. There's no shame in wanting to enjoy the bottle you just bought.
Serving wine at the correct temperature is one of the most important factors in having a good experience and IT IS FREE! In this particular case, the wine should probably be served in the mid-to-high 60s, and medium-bodied red wines are near the top end of the serving temperature spectrum. If you had chosen Pinot Noir, technically you'd it to be served a few degrees cooler than the Zin.
In general, white wines are served too cold, and red wines are served too warm. There are a couple of rules to keep in mind when serving wines:
Chilling a wine tends to reduces the aromatics and flavor profile. Why do you think a restaurant is serving that crappy Pinot Grigio at 40 degrees? Warming up a wine results in increased aromatics. With a quality wine, this is desired. With an inferior one, you'd want to reduce the temperature to hide its flaws. If it sucked when it was cold, when served warm it will now suck more!
Low temperatures make acidic and tannic wines seem more so. This is why you'd serve a tannic Cabernet Sauvignon slightly warmer than a lean Pinot Noir. High temperatures have the opposite effect of reducing the sensations of acid and tannin. By serving the Cab 'warmer,' I'm still talking 7 - 10 degrees cooler than most restaurants are serving it, unless they have an actual wine program that they put thought into.
I could tell you that you need to drink your Chardonnay at 56 degrees, but are you really going to pull out your thermometer? Without getting too detailed, here's a quick rundown in order of popular common wines:
Coldest (~40 degrees, or normal refrigerator temperature)
Warmest (~70 degrees, or just below room temperature)
You can pull that bottle of bubbly out of the traditional refrigerator and serve it in just a few minutes. On the other hand, if you store your red wines at room temperature, you'd want to pop them in the fridge for somewhere between 30 - 60 mins to cool them down, depending on your preference. I'd also caution that 'room temperature' is different for everyone. If you lived in St. Louis in July with my dad as I did, 'room temperature' was closer to 80. Adjust accordingly.
Here are a few gadgets that I like to use to keep my wines at the proper temperature:
After you open your bottle, set it in this fancy marble wine cooler to prevent the wine temperature from rising too quickly. It's also sure to impress your friends.
If you need to chill down a wine quickly, an ice bucket can do wonders. I own this one and maybe you should, too.
For those of us who want to take no chances with the wine being served at the right temperature at a restaurant, try this tote bag made out of the same material used in wet suits! In addition, it comes with freezable gel packs to keep your wines cool.