Power Entertaining: Are You Serving Your Wines at the Appropriate Temperature?

When it comes to serving wine, two of the biggest misconceptions are that white wines must be served cold and red wines must be served at room temperature.

While it’s true that white wines are more refreshing served cool, if you allow a white wine to get too cold, you paralyze the wine’s ability to communicate its distinct aromas. Unfortunately, most restaurants serve white wines at a too-cold temperature, and by allowing a white wine, or even a rosé, to sit in an ice bucket the entire evening, they are depriving their guests of the full enjoyment of the vintage.

In fact, you should be able to identify a white wine’s region with your nose — this is what distinguishes a fine white wine from an average one. For example, you should be able to not the hazelnut minerality aroma of a Premier Cru Meursault, or the white pepperiness of a Grüner Veltliner.

And should a red wine be served at room temperature? It depends on the room. If a wine is being brought up from a cold underground cellar, it’s allowed to warm up to the temperature of the room in which it will be served (chambré). But when a red wine is served too warm, it becomes unbalanced.

To better understand what I mean, take a look at the diagram below. There are basically three flavor components that are constantly interplaying in a red wine: sweetness, sourness and bitterness. Sweetness comes from sugar in the grapes, and from alcohol, which gives body and fruitiness when in low alcohol amounts (11 to 16 percent). Sourness is also present, thanks to various acids found in all wines (tartaric, malic and citric). And finally, Bitterness presents itself, thanks to oak barrels, as well as tannins, which come from grape skins and pits.

In every red wine there is a sort of “tug of war” going on among these components, because they are always appearing in different intensities due to the climactic vintage conditions as well as winemaking techniques. This is precisely what makes wine such a fascinating experience and never taste exactly the same from one year to another.

I like to say it this way: All wines are either in balance or out of balance. In a perfect year, there is just enough sunlight to ripen the grapes and give them enough sweetness to balance the opposing sourness from the acids and the bitterness from tannins. Perfectly balanced wines are rare and represent a chemical symphony in which it’s all in perfect harmony. Unfortunately, the weather around the world is never consistent, causing many wines to be slightly out of balance. So when you find one that is in perfect balance, buy a case!

Another important factor in one’s ability to properly assess whether or not a red wine is in balance is the temperature. As I mentioned, sweetness comes from sugar and alcohol, and alcohol tastes sweet only when cool (65 degrees). At higher temperatures (72 degrees and higher), alcohol develops a burning sensation, no longer contributing sweetness. Perhaps you’ve noticed that some people keep their premium vodkas and tequilas in the freezer — this is so the liquors will taste smoother, without the burn.

With regard to how sweetness/fruitiness in a red wine is affected by temperature, you will noticed that as the temperature decreases, the sweetness/fruitiness is enhanced. And no red wine will appear balanced if it’s served too warm. What is too warm? Room temperature!

In order to properly serve red wine to your friends or clients it must be slightly chilled so that it’s in balance. On the other hand, white wines must not be served too cold. One of the simplest rules I have is called the 20/20 Rule. When entertaining your guests, take your white wines out of the refrigerator for 20 minutes to allow them to warm up a bit. At the same time, place your reds in the refrigerator for 20 minutes to take away their burning aftertaste.

If you do any significant amount of entertaining, you should own a freestanding or under-the-counter wine refrigerator. Just as most modern kitchens include warming drawers to keep plates at optimum temperatures, so too, should a kitchen have a wine-chilling unit so you don’t have to worry about leaving your red wine in the refrigerator for too long. These come in all sizes and price ranges. I own the Sub Zero 424 (46 bottles) because it has dual compressors, which allow for separate temperature compartments for whites as well as reds. I keep mine at 48 degrees for my whites and 58 degrees for my reds. I keep my reds at 5 degrees cooler than I want them at service, because by the time they are removed, decanted and poured they will have reached optimal service temperature at 64 degrees.

Bottom line is: chill your reds!

Best-Rated Wine Refrigerators

When considering a new wine cellar, you must look at the features that distinguish the best of them. Firstly, temperature is key to wine storage and most experts agree that 55 to 58 degrees is ideal. You want a wine cellar that will keep light exposure to a minimum. Many come with opaque doors that will filter out UV light. You will also want to control vibrations, so machines that run quietly are best. Lastly, storing bottles require the right level of humidity. In order to keep the corks from drying out, you want to maintain a 50 percent level of humidity.

Who makes the best wine refrigerators?

Consumer reports did an exhaustive report a few years ago and rated the Kenmore 9913 ($500) very high. It’s sold at Sears and holds 40 bottles. Another one of their top-rated models was the Marvel 6SWC ($1,500), which holds 54 bottles. The GE wine cellar was also rated high, and at $1,200, was well priced. Another company that makes reasonably priced wine refrigerators is Haier. They make a 35-bottle dual zone unit, available in Wal-Mart, priced at $399. In fact, if you don’t expect to keep much wine around before drinking it, you might want to consider the Haier HVW12AAB that holds 12 bottles of wine. It sells for only $100 and has double-paned insulated glass doors with an adjustable thermostat with chrome shelves. Of course, if you want the Rolls Royce of wine storage units, you might want to go with Sub Zero, which makes beautiful pieces of kitchen art that are designed to last a lifetime.

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