Why Chill White Wine?

I read an interesting article the other day that posed what seemed a simple question, that proved anything but. Why do we drink white wine chilled? I’ve always accepted that we do, but never really wondered why. The answer is not a technical one, and fairly obvious once you hear it.

Why do we drink wine in the first place? Most of us would say we drink wine to be refreshed. And, most of us would also agree that cold drinks tend to refresh us more than hot drinks. We should remember that wine originally was a substitute for water and most of us would prefer cold water to hot. So the not-so-obvious answer to the question is; we drink wines as cold as we can. That is, we drink them at the lowest temperature at which the characteristics of the wine are not compromised by the temperature.

So why do we drink white wines so much colder than red wines. The basic answer is that white wines can stand the cold better than red wines. Cold tends to suppress the production of aromas, but white wines depend less on aromas for flavor that reds. We drink white wines in smaller glasses than reds because we don’t need the big glass to concentrate the aromas and the smaller service area preserves the cooler temperature. White wines are also more acidic than red wines and many would agree that acidity is complemented by cooler temperatures.

Red wines have some, but much less tolerance for cold than whites. A significant part of a red wines taste comes from its aroma, which is why we drink red wine in large glasses. Excessive cold discourages the production of the aromatics that make up the bouquet of the wine and cause the wine to be essentially tasteless. In addition, cold tends to accentuate the unpleasantness of the tannins in red wines. So while chilling a red wine can make it more refreshing and actually accentuate its fruitiness, getting it too cold is worse than not chilling it at all.

The bottom line is that the right temperature is very important to the full appreciation of both red and white wine. The right temperature is a balance; warm enough to allow the aromatics to develop the bouquet, yet cold enough to balance the acidity and alcohol content and bring out the fruit. Red and white wines served too warm will taste harsh and unappealing; served to cold there will be little aroma, and therefore little taste.

The most common mistake is serving white wines too cold and red wines too warm. The term “room temperature” is misleading. Unless you live in northern France, the temperature of your home is probably warmer than that at which red wine should be served. The correct serving temperature depends on the wine: simple, crisp white wines like Pinot Grigio should be served between 40 and 45 degrees; heavier white wines like Sauvignon Blanc between 50 and 55 degrees. Light red wines like Pinot Noir are best between 50 and 55 degrees, heavier red wines, like Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and Zinfandels between 60 and 65 degrees.

These are serving temperatures, not storage temperatures. Wine should be stored somewhat below the serving temperature to compensate for the warming that occurs while serving and drinking.

Cellar Notes

We just returned from vacation where we had the opportunity to taste a fairly wide variety of wines in both style and origin. I don’t usually suggest wines in Cellar Notes that cost more than $25, but I thought you might be interested in a cross section of what we sampled and liked, without regard to price. Some of these wines will only be available from the downtown Spec’s. Enjoy.

Il Ducale (Sangiovese, Merlot, Syrah blend)
Ruffino
Toscana IGT
$15 – $20 Spec’s

Pinot Noir
La Crema
Sonoma
$15 – $20 Spec’s

Cabernet Sauvignon
Silverado
Napa Valley
$40 – $50 Spec’s

Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve
Robert Mondavi
Napa Valley
$130 – $140 Spec’s