A Cool Idea

Forget what you’ve heard — red wine can, and often must,be chilled for proper enjoyment

The temperature was in the high 80s in July in Des Moines, Iowa, where wine judges from around the country had gathered for a two-day competition. When the event was over, six of us headed off to dinner at one of the city’s fine steakhouses.

The event’s chief judge brought a selection of red wines that had won gold medals the previous year. (Unlike Michigan, Iowa allows you to bring your own wine to a restaurant, which may then charge a nominal per bottle corkage fee.)

The bottles were extremely warm, having ridden to dinner in a car trunk. At the table, I reached up and felt one, which I guessed was about 75-80 degrees, and suggested that we get some ice buckets to cool them all down.

The waitress was incredulous. “You want to chill red wine?” she asked.

Yes. In fact, I do it all summer long because the proper temperature at which to serve red, that’s to say the temperature at which the fruit and aromatic characteristics show best, is going to be 60-65 degrees. And most homes and restaurants in the summer are kept at about 73 degrees, often too warm for reds.

This issue of how cool or warm to serve red wine gets very little attention from restaurants and even many retailers, unless they have professional sommeliers on staff. And it’s a significant failure when servers and restaurant managers don’t understand this.

For example, in July, at a very posh new place, I had to ask for an ice bucket because a 2005 Bouchaine Pinot Noir came to the table so overly warm — I’m certain it was near 80 degrees — that it was flabby and flat.

As soon as that wine was cooled, all kinds of aromas and fruit characteristics began to pop up, reminding me of watching the Borrego desert bloom briefly after a rainstorm many years ago.

I don’t have a fancy wine cellar at home with temperature and humidity controls, mostly because where I do store wine is pretty steady between 62-70 degrees from winter to summer. In addition, I consume most of what I buy within five years, so I don’t really need cooler temperatures for aging wine. That range is comfortable for my storage needs.

But when red wines sit for long stretches in temperatures above 75, they will eventually begin to show wear and tear. The first thing noticeable on opening a bottle of overly warm red is a wide and dull fruit aroma, something akin to the whiff of sweet fruit when you open a jam jar. The second is in the flavors themselves, also very soft and flabby, with a flat raisin-like character.

But chilling the wine gives it a kind of liposuction that evaporates — or hides — the flab and lets the wine’s structural mass — the smells and layers of fruit components — be more prominent on the palate. That’s the desirable part of a red.

A well-known wine writer tells the story of ordering an ice bucket at a New York restaurant in the middle of summer, only to be reprimanded by the waiter, who said, “Red wine isn’t supposed to be chilled.” To which the writer replied,  “I’m not going to chill it; I’m going to make it drinkable.” Precisely!

2006 Simi Zinfandel Sonoma County ($20): Plum and clove aromas on the entry, bright fruit note, blackberry and cherry on the mid-palate. Good structure. And, yes, a slight chill will help.

2006 Simi Roseto ($15): Fruity, racy rosé with tropical aromas followed in the mouth with crisp, lush strawberry overtones. Very typical rosé character. Lovely. Serve well chilled.

2007 Sebastiani Russian River Unoaked Chardonnay ($18): Surprisingly chablis-like. Crisp pear and citrus character, with great structure, and a long, elegant finish.

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