Key to Wine Temperature

2 September 2011
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


People stare at me in restaurants because my red wines are often in ice buckets and my white wines are dripping with condensation on my dining table. All still, dry red wines regardless of class, quality or price tag should not be served above 20 degrees Celcius. However, in Hong Kong as well as in many other Asian cities, it is more common to find red wines served well above this temperature than below it.


For white wines, the opposite, chilling effect takes place – they are often placed in ice buckets and cooled to a temperature below 7 degrees Celcius. When you take a sip of white wine that is close to zero degrees, your tongue becomes numb from the cold and any flavours that the white wine can offer is masked by the numbing effect. But no one is complaining and since wine fridge space in restaurants is scarce, why change?


If we were served a dish that is supposed to be piping hot, like double boiled soup, but it arrives at our table cold, we would certainly complain. If we were served a beer too warm, we would certainly return the bottle. We often encounter bottles of red wine sold by the glass stored at open bar counters without any refrigeration and accept it as just the way things are. Somehow with wine, it seems we are less particular about the precise temperature that it is served.


Light bodied crisp white wines such as Soave, Chablis, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc or Vinho Verde can be served cold, at around 8 to 9 degrees Celcius. Sauvignon Blanc and other aromatic whites should be served a bit warmer than this to show off their wonderfully vibrant flavours. Cooler temperature exaggerates the acidity and the minerality of whites while diminishing the flavour compounds. Simple light white wines, which do not have complex or notable flavours but are more about lean profile and firm acidity can be served fairly cold. However, the more serious the white wine, the warmer the temperature should be.


For full-bodied oak-matured Chardonnays, the ideal temperature is about 12 degrees Celcius. I love my Montrachet Grand Cru white from Burgundy at around 14 to 15 degrees Celcius. At this temperature, the complex flavours of Montrachet, filled with hazelnuts, peaches, apricots and spices can open up on the nose as well as the palate and can really be appreciated.


When in doubt and you don’t have a wine fridge which keeps wine at a constant 12 to 15 degrees temperature, then from your normal fridge, take out the full bodied white about 10 to 15 minutes before drinking and the temperature will rise up slowly to about 12 to 15 degrees depending on the ambient temperature.


Even for red wines, it is better to error on the side of being slightly too cold rather than too warm. Wine warms up very quickly in the glass and on the table. Cooling wine, usually in an ice bucket filled partly with cold water and ice, often creates pockets of cold wine, leaving the neck of the bottle and the middle of the bottle at different temperatures to the side of the bottle in closer contact with the ice. To have the same even temperature throughout the bottle, it is easier to take wine from a cool cellar or wine fridge and warm it up slowly at room temperature. We have always been led to believe that wine should be consumed at ‘room temperature’ and this was a term passed down from the days without central heating or air-conditioning when cellar temperature was a cool 18 degrees Celsius. Our room temperature is at least 21 degrees or higher which is already too warm for all red wines.


For light-bodied reds like Beaujolais, simple Grenache or Bourgogne red, these can be refreshing and fine to enjoy at about 15 degrees. The red berry flavours are fairly simple so the cool temperature just enhances the refreshing light character of these wines. Medium-bodied fruity red wines like Rioja Crianza, basic Chianti or a simple Merlot, can be enjoyed at 16 or 17 degrees. This temperature provides the right balance between bringing out the fruit characters while providing a nice lift to the wine.


For most serious full-bodied red wines, 18 degrees is the optimal temperature. At temperatures over 20 degrees, red wines can taste flabby, fleshy and heavy. Cooler temperatures allow the flavours to be lifted and the acidity and backbone of the wine to come to the fore. Warmer temperatures will exaggerate any faults or coarseness in red wine. Thus for cheap and cheerful wines, cooling the wine accentuates its fruitiness while hiding the coarse and rough tannins. Higher quality wines have more layered flavours which benefit from slightly warmer temperatures. Combined with the correct aeration (using appropriate glasses and decanting if necessary), temperature of red wines can greatly enhance or mask different aspects of wine.


Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post