Wine: Chilling Out

Even red wines can benefit from refrigeration


As the weather gets warmer and open wine bottles begin to find their way to your kitchen counter, the question is sure to arise: Is it OK to refrigerate wine — even red wine? And for how long should you chill a bottle?

Chilling whites, of course, merits little discussion, although too much cold for too long can damage even a white wine.

But the basic answer is that, within limits, chilling is good. Especially for some reds, short stints in the refrigerator will help the wine. It also makes it last longer.

I always chill young Beaujolais, especially the Nouveau, and I will also occasionally give a slight chill to young pinot noir.

How does this benefit the wine? A lot of wines, mainly inexpensive reds, are made in an over-the-top style these days, with an emphasis on deeply concentrated fruit and floral characteristics. They also lack balance.

Some of this is a matter of personal taste, but to me, chilling pulls a wine together, particularly a wine that has bright, young, sweet fruit and lacks acidity; a wine that’s coming up short on structure.

The cold concentrates and sharpens what acidity there is in a wine and restrains the confectionary flowery-ness of the grapes, giving the wine slightly more balance.

Some might argue that, well, why mess with what the winemaker wanted to do? That’s true, except that I also like to drink a wine the way I like it.

If the choice is drinking the wine as I like it or not drinking it at all, I’m all too happy to chill it. Sometimes in a restaurant I will (heavens!) — drop an ice cube or two into my red, just enough to loosen the concentration and bring the alcohol heat down a tad.

So, if cooling involves a genuine chilling, how slight a chill should that be? If we could all count on wines to come to the table at the European natural cellar temperature of 55 degrees, there wouldn’t be much to talk about.

But in this country, most of our red wines are stored at well above that in restaurants — and at home. In most cases, that’s far too warm. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, and other reds perform better in the glass served at 60 to 70 degrees. Above about 75 degrees, they start to fall apart and become unpleasant, yet almost every restaurant serves wine in that temperature range.

White wines, as we all know, taste better at colder temperatures. Pinot grigio, muscadet, sauvignon blanc, Riesling, and others all seems to show best between 40 and 50 degrees.

Young champagnes that have racy, crisp acidity and youthful bubble thrive and do their best when quite cold, 36 to 40 degrees. While older, dark champagnes, like older chardonnay, are better warmer at 50 to 65 degrees.

But with any red wine, I truly think that it makes the most sense to serve it cold and let it warm up in the room air until it reaches that old Euro benchmark of 55 to 60 degrees, which is still the ideal drinking temperature for most reds. Besides, nearly everything red in stores and restaurants today are young and red — and better cooled.

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