I cannot think of a better example than ice cream to illustrate how all wines have an optimal temperature.
Imagine a block of ice cream so frozen that it steams. You chisel a chunk from it, and to liberate a bite from that chunk you need a tile cutter, or at least a steak knife. Is that the ice cream you want? Forget about the harsh texture or the potential tongue freeze. At such a low temperature, all of the flavor is hidden. You get a huge arctic blast of cold burn, and then you’re back to work again with your steak knife. You may as well be eating ice. Now let’s say that you let the over-frozen chunk sit for a while — too long — and when you return to it, it’s not only melted but also warm. Nobody wants that ice cream either.
The ice cream we all want is somewhere in between the extremes, and while the preferred temperature might vary for different people, the consensus is probably going to land within a very narrow window of degrees. Don’t we all want our ice cream to arrive at the proper temperature and then evolve — or devolve — in the bowl as we dig through it, ending with a final scrape of partially melted yet still-cold sugary-creamy ecstasy?
We can know that bliss with our wines too. The temperatures — the numbers — are important, but they change unless we’re in a place that is constantly cold, and I don’t want to drink or eat somewhere that’s going to give me a runny nose or force me to blow into my fist. I do, however, want my wines to be served at roughly the right temperature. It’s easier than it seems. You could start by investing in a wine thermometer and hitting the numbers exactly. The easy solution for those of us who cannot be bothered by the trappings of precision? Serve your wine cooler than it needs to be, and let it warm up in the glass.
Most people pour reds too warm and whites too cold. When a white is too cold, its aromas are harder to pick out, and it can seem more acidic. When a red is too warm, it sends up a steamy blast of alcohol, and the fruit gets lost. A too-cold white will descend to its ideal temperature soon enough, but a too-warm red will never realize its full potential — what it might have been with a little chill on it.
If you have heard that red wine should be served at room temperature, keep in mind that the room in question was in Western Europe 100 years ago. There was a lot of indoor hand-blowing back then and some runny noses, because room temperature was about 60 degrees. What is it now, 72? Somewhere in the 68 to 75 range? No wine on earth should be served at 68 degrees, let alone 72.
You can get very specific about temperatures, and a few degrees will make a difference, but generally, serve your big red wines like cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and syrah between 55 and 65 degrees; lighter reds like pinot noir, tempranillo and sangiovese between 50 and 60; dessert wines and fuller-bodied whites like chardonnay and riesling between 45 and 55; and lighter-bodied whites like sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio, rosés and sparkling wines between 40 and 50 (the better the sparkling wine, the closer to 50). For long-term storage, set your wine refrigerator at 55 and forget about it, or lay your bottles down in a dark, humid room that stays between 50 and 60 all year long.
If the numbers make your head spin, put your whites in the fridge for two hours and take them out 30 minutes before you serve them, and put your reds in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before you serve them. They will be just about right by the time they hit your glass, or at least by the time you’re finished with that glass and ready for another one from the same bottle. Try enough wines at different temperatures, and you’ll be able to chuck your thermometer. Just keep an ice bucket nearby, and make sure there is lots of water in it, not just ice; that’s the best and fastest way to cool a bottle.
Half the fun of wine drinking is recognizing when a wine is finally at its optimal temperature and starting to develop in the glass. I never want the temperature to be way out of whack, but a few degrees here or there won’t ruin my night. It’s kind of like watching a sunset. The fleeting moments of awe, when colors brighten and spread across sky, are preceded and followed by several far less-impressive moments. But they don’t detract from the experience — they are a part of it.
So there you go. Learn the proper temperatures, and aim for them. You will discover perfection in there somewhere, but don’t feel you need to capture it and hold onto it forever. When your glass is full, think of an ice cream sunset, and enjoy the moments before and after the perfection. Drink with the mindset of a poet, not a chemist.
A version of this article appeared in print on November 11, 2015, in the Food & Dining section of the Chicago Tribune with the headline “Getting wine temperature just right – Most pour reds too warm, whites too cold”