Effects of Temperature on the Taste of Wine
Wine is notoriously served at the wrong temperature. In general, white wines should be chilled. But they're often overly so, to the point being downright frigid. And red wines are nearly always served at room temperature when they could actually stand to be a bit cooler than that. Now, if it were simply an issue of temperature alone, it probably wouldn't matter much. But unlike soda or juice or plain water, temperature has a direct and profound effect on the taste and texture of wine, which can make all the difference in whether and how much you enjoy it. So much so, in fact, that simply changing the temperature of a wine can make it go from barely tolerable to quite enjoyable… or vice versa.
Wines react to changes in temperature in the following ways:
- Alcohol. When a wine is too warm, it can taste overly alcoholic and have a slight "burn" or be experienced as "hot" in the mouth. This is especially an issue with big, full-bodied red wines that already tend to have high levels of alcohol, like those from warm climate New World producers (e.g. California and Australia). Serving one a bit cooler than room temperature can actually tone down the heat of that alcohol, and allow you to appreciate everything else going on in the glass.
- Astringency. Chilling a wine increases our perception of its acidity and tannin levels, making it more astringent. This effect is experienced as a greater degree of tartness in flavor and dryness in texture. Depending on the wine, that can be either good or bad. It isn't so much an issue for whites, which are vastly lower in tannins (if they have any at all). A red wine, especially one that's light or medium in body, can benefit from the chilling effect since that would give it a bit more substance and texture in your mouth.
- Aromatics. Demonstrating the same principle as when warming food releases its aromas, chilling a wine mutes its aromatic compounds. White wines — many of which really show themselves through strongly fragrant aromatics — seem flat and dull when they're too cold.
Slightly chilling a red wine is a good way to enjoy what might otherwise be too hot and heavy for a warm summer evening. But don't be afraid to experiment with that sort of thing, regardless of the season. If you overdo it, no biggie; in the few minutes it spends in your glass, the wine will warm up. But in the process, you may very well find that it has reached a perfect window of drinking temperature, which, as I mentioned, can make all the difference. You may find that a red wine you didn't particularly care for is suddenly drinking beautifully.
On the flip side, go easy on the chilling of your white wines. At a restaurant, if the white wine you've ordered arrived over-chilled (as is overwhelmingly the case), try wrapping your hands around the bowl of the glass to transfer some heat to the wine. At home, one thing I've noticed that a lot of people like to do — and it makes me cringe — is to refrigerate their white wines. Honestly, in my opinion, wine that's been in the fridge for a while is entirely too cold to be served and drunk immediately. Unless you're planning to enjoy that wine outside on a hot summer day, there's no way it's going to get down to a temperature soon enough to where you'll actually be able to taste it with your meal. And I mean really taste it. Seriously, if you're doing that, stop it: the refrigerator is for keeping milk, not wine. If you want to chill a bottle, stick it in a bucket of ice water. If that's too much trouble (believe me, I can relate; I don't even own an ice bucket), then go ahead and use the fridge… just remember to take it out after fifteen minutes. If you want it done faster, put it in the freezer — yes, the freezer — for five, ten minutes, tops. Set a timer; it's that easy.
As with so many other things in our culture, we Americans tend to go to the extreme: far in either one direction or the other. And so it is in the way we're known to drink wine. Instead of thinking of red and white wines as having to be enjoyed on opposite ends of the temperature range, try for a more nuanced approach. Have that red wine a bit cooler than you normally would. Try that white wine a tad warmer. Experiment. You might end up pouring something completely unexpected… from a wine you've been drinking all along!