The strange thing is that we all should have known better, but the day was so nice and the people so enjoyable that no one really complained.
It was an event staged by a winery for a small group of media people, all of whom have been in the wine writing dodge for decades, and the day was so lovely that we decided to sit on a patio under a cover to protect us from the sun.
And it was, at first, a great idea. The Sonoma morning had been relatively cool. And by noon, when we gathered for an aperitif, the temperature outside was still moderate.
But an hour passed before we actually sat down, and then the first wines were chilled whites, which was fine. The day was growing warmer, and we were, after all, under a cover of sorts that shielded us from direct sunlight.
By the time the main-course wines showed up, three terrific pinot noirs, the temperature on the patio had reached about 90 degrees, and even though the wines had been kept cool until they were served, they quickly reached about 80 degrees.
And this ruined the wines.
All this reminded me that for the most part, wines in the United States are usually served at the wrong temperature.
Start with reds. The old phrase about them being served at “room temperature” is absurd. Most rooms are around
70 degrees. Most reds taste pretty terrible at that temperature. Most reds are best at 60 degrees, or even a bit lower.
The reason is that, especially with the way today’s red wines are being made, most are soft and don’t have much acidity — at least, not as much as they need to work with food when they are warm. Keeping reds cool at least allows them to retain some sort of balance with the foods with which they are aimed at pairing.
Far too many restaurants in the U.S. still follow the old “red wine at room temperature” rule. This has led to awkward moments — such as when I ask for an ice bucket for a red wine that was served at about 80 degrees.
On a few occasions, waiters (the snooty ones) have advised me that red wine “isn’t served chilled,” to which I have replied that I merely want to get the wine to a drinkable level.
One New York City waiter got almost pugilistic about this. After some invective from him, I advised him that I was buying the wine and I would do what I wanted to do with it. It was not a pretty scene.
Most whites, on the other hand, are served far too cold. I mostly blame restaurants for this since most keep their wines in refrigerators that keep produce cold, as it should be kept, and this means at 40 degrees, or even lower.
At such a temperature, most whites exhibit merely one trait: wetness. Very few wines should be served stone cold, and usually they are poor quality wines you don’t really want to taste anyway.
On the other hand, dry rosé wines and rieslings should be served relatively cold (though 40 is a bit too cold). I love dry riesling on a warm day. But if it’s served too warm, the wine becomes flaccid and uninteresting.
The more floral grapes, such as muscat, gewurztraminer, and even many viogniers can stand up to a bit more chilling than chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, which are best at about 60 degrees — about the same as reds.
Sparkling wine and Champagne should be kept relatively cold to retain their effervescence. Dessert wines like Sauternes and late harvest riesling should also be served chilled since their aromas can withstand that kind of handling. Chilling helps with the balance of the wine.
As for the three pinot noirs we had at lunch the other day, I’ll have to try them in a cooler setting to understand them.
No Wine of the Week.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County and publishes a weekly wine newsletter, Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.