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Dan Berger On Wine: Take your temperature
On Wine

Dan Berger On Wine: Take your temperature

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: May 22, 2020 series
  • Updated

Are you enjoying wine the way the winemaker expected?

Whether it’s a 10-year-old Zinfandel, an un-oaked Chardonnay, or a classic Champagne, the best way to enjoy wine is to have it in an optimum manner. To do otherwise shortchanges the consumer.

And one of the most important issues is to serve each wine at the temperature that’s best for it. This is more important with fine wines. The better the wine, the more careful we should be about the serving temperature.

Most casual drinkers don’t care about this, but wine lovers know how important it can be. I believe the same care should also apply to simple, everyday wines that often are slurped without much thought.

Serving wine at the incorrect temperature runs the risk of disliking an otherwise satisfactory wine.

I’ve known people who chill everything, including reds. If the wine is of no particular quality, such a regime is probably fine. With really cheap wine, the colder it is, the less you can taste, which can be a good thing.

But to chill a fine, mature red, for instance, risks losing one of its greatest charms — the mature aroma of complexity, which is one of the reasons we age such wines in the first place.

It isn’t easy to get correct information about serving temps. Wine books rarely help; the topic isn’t often addressed, or if it is, just tangentially. So basic rules don’t exist.

Also, restaurant servers often are wrong. I’ve experienced many problems dining out and serving temperature is one area in which many establishments are ill-informed.

(I’ll never forget a skirmish I had with a waiter at the late Ernie’s in San Francisco. He kept jamming an already well-chilled Chardonnay bottle into the ice bucket, I kept removing it. Or the episode in a now-defunct New York Italian café when a waiter refused to bring an ice bucket for a too-warm Chianti, grunting, “Red wines are never served cold!”)

White wine rule: Serving most white wines too cold risks missing delicate nuances. Fine-quality Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Verdicchio, white Rhône blends, and other traditionally dry whites are best served cool, not ice-cold.

White wine exception: Aromatic whites can take more chilling because they’re more piquantly assertive. You can well-chill Gewürztraminer, Riesling, some Viogniers, Pinot Gris, and Muscat. Such wines’ strong aromatics help them withstand the loss of nuanced scents that cold destroys in non-aromatic whites.

I have also “helped” some Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs to be more drinkable by well-chilling them to assist with deficient acidities or to blunt actual residual sugar.

Red wine rule: Serving reds at “room temperature” is mostly a terrible idea. Warm reds can display a bitterness from the tannins that provide structure. Serve them cool, not cold.

Red wine exception: Red wines made to be quaffed usually are best when slightly chilled. Beaujolais, Valpolicella, light-styled Zinfandel, Gamay, Dolcetto, Zweigelt, and St. Laurent are only a few of those that are best when slightly chilled.

Rosé wine rule: Most pink wines can take more chilling because most have residual sugar (or alcohols above 13.5%) that make the wines taste soft. Chilling also can solve rosé issues related to inexact wine-making, such as tannin. However, the best dry Provence rosés, with alcohols in the 11% to 12% range, can stand on their own if served just cool.

Sparkling wine rule: This is tricky. Most Americans drink Champagnes and other sparkling wines very cold. An old friend and longtime wine lover said, “For me 38 degrees is great.” But he pointed out that British Champagne lovers prefer their favorite sparklers cool at best. Many such wine lovers consider ice-cold bubbly to be for heathens. He also said that Brits “probably got used to (tepid bubbly) during the (second world) war, when they went for years without much refrigeration, and they got used to bubbly that way. And that’s the way they drink beer.”

Dessert wine rule: Because most dessert wines have a lot of sugar, it may be best to chill them to 40 degrees or so, to let the cold balance some of the sugar. But with top German Rieslings (Auslese and above), French Sauternes, Canadian ice wine, and Italian Moscato d’Asti or Vin Santo, cooler is better than very cold – to let the aromatics show.

Sherries and Ports: Cool is best. Too cold can mask some of the better aspects of these fortifieds.

General rule of wine temperature: If there’s a one-temp-fits-all, it’s about 65 degrees. Most fine wines, both whites and reds, will show well here and it is a lot better than, say, 75 degrees.

Thermometers have been marketed for years that tell the internal temperature of cooking meats. Most work well with wine. They can be bought at any kitchen supplies store for $15 to $25. It’s unnecessary to spend a lot for a specialty “wine thermometer,” most of which offer nothing more than do the simplest devices.

One less-than-$15 “bottle thermometer” wraps part-way around wine bottles to tell the temp before the cork is pulled.

If you need to chill a wine quickly, 15 minutes in the freezer will bring the temperature down enough to enjoy it until you can get a bucket and ice. For faster chilling, add ice cubes, some salt, and warm water.

Wines of the Week:

Three wines from the small Sonoma-based March Wines, owned by Maura and Charley March. The young couple met at a Duckhorn Harvest Party in late 2012, eventually married, and in 2016 founded their tiny winery to make wines from only two grapes, Riesling and the rare, dark-skinned St. Laurent grape, popular in Austria.

The three wines listed below are delightfully distinctive and the winery offers free shipping on orders of $100 or more. See

2019 March Old Vine (1971) Riesling, Santa Clara Country, Redwing Vineyard ($25): Subtle mint and fresh fennel aromas with delicate blossom-y fruit notes and a trace of TDN (petrol) that should grow more prominent in time. Great acidity and low pH (3.08!). A superb effort! It’ll be better in 2-3 years.

2018 March St. Laurent, Carneros, Ricci Vineyard ($32): Dark color, surprising aroma of fresh blueberry and plum. Very low tannins and handsomely approachable now. It’s structured like Beaujolais. Maura says, “It’s super-quaffable.”

2019 March Rosé of St. Laurent, Carneros, Ricci Vineyard ($25): Blueberry notes alongside strawberry with a dry entry, but the mid-palate is softer and it has a broad mouthfeel, so is best served chilled. It loses nothing at lower temperatures!

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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