Wine: Some Reds Need to Chill Out

Chill Out: For some reds, cooling them improves their drinkability and can also act to prevent heat damage

When a bottle of red wine is brought to the table at a restaurant and presented by a server, I often ask to feel the bottle.

Nothing kinky here. I just want to sense the temperature at which the wine was stored because, more often than not, even in good restaurants, red wines are kept too warm. This concern is not about aging, but about drinking.

If the bottle feels warmer to the touch than about 70 degrees, I ask for ice and a bucket and that the wine be chilled for 10 or 15 minutes. A lot of times, I get odd looks from the staff but, sometimes, the wine specialist in the house appreciates why I’m doing it.

Chilling red wines has always been suggested for certain reds, such as Beaujolais. In France, restaurants often offer Brouilly or Morgon or other Beaujolais as either “frais” (cool) or room temperature. Chilling can also be particularly desirable for many of today’s popular American-style wines that are ripe and high-alcohol. Cooling them down tends to mask that searing alcohol and restrain the heavy jam-like character, making the wine much less aromatic, and more palate floral and drinkable, in my book.

If your preference in reds runs to lighter and somewhat restrained wines, cold serves as a kind of rebalancing that makes them more pleasant. This tends to be particularly true for inexpensive reds.

In some ways, it’s not surprising that restaurants keep and serve overly warm wine. There are, of course, excellent restaurants with wine cellars, good storage conditions, and someone, usually a sommelier, who oversees the wine area and updates the list. The majority of restaurants, however, buy and sell their wines on a move-them-in, move-them-out basis, so they don’t keep them long enough to warrant spending money on a designated specialist or a temperature- and humidity-controlled space. The result: Often, wines are stored in or near the heat of the kitchen, which leads to the occasional spoiled bottle. When you add poor storage to the popularity of these lopsidedly styled ripe wines, the chance of earlier disintegration or just the plain-old need for a little help to be drinkable increases greatly.

Some years ago, I was invited to speak at a wine conference in Maui, Hawaii. One of the speakers on another panel was Bob Cabral, then the new winemaker for the great California pinot-noir house, Williams Selyem.

Cabral was scheduled to pour his expensive boutique wines (even back then they sold at about $40 a bottle) for the vast outdoor gathering on a lawn overlooking the Pacific.

The problem was that the outdoor temperature was a breezy 93 degrees. The panic in Cabral’s eyes was quite clear. Somewhere, he found a giant metal tub, asked for it to be filled with ice and water, and quickly took an entire case of his costly pinot noir and stuck the bottles in the icy bath and then moved the tub under the shade of a table. The wine was terrific — no sun or heat damage.

Chilling wine is not a panacea, and it’s not for all grape varieties. For instance, one that doesn’t do well with too much chill is merlot. In others, the fruit pops up nicely.

What’s surprising is how much cold a wine can take without being damaged. One caution: Don’t try this on aged red of more than five or six years old. That could be trouble.

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