As is the case with most things having to do with wine, a conversation on one subject often bleeds into another, which then turns into yet another subject. Before you know it, you’ve found yourself far from where you began but still, somehow, talking about wine—and hopefully drinking some at the same time.
This is the case with last week’s Penniless Epicure column and the one the week before. I began by discussing the unfair reputation that screw cap wines have had to shake here in the United States and in many parts of Europe. That led me to talk about the very reason why screw caps are a great idea in the first place: the inefficiency of cork. The main reason for cork’s inefficiency is that it allows for the two most common kinds of wine spoilage, which are oxidization and corkage (or TCA, for all you chemistry students out there).
How exactly does cork lead to spoilage in the case of oxidization, you ask? Inconsistency in storage temperature. The cooler it gets, the more the cork contracts and vice versa. This leads to the cork’s airtight seal becoming compromised and oxygen being allowed to seep in, which basically puts the wine’s aging process in fast forward.
All of this led to my wife asking, as I poured her a glass of champagne on Valentine’s Day, “How come we drink white wine cold and red wine at room temperature?”
I opened my mouth to respond and realized I didn’t have a really great answer. I thought about it long and hard and realized that the reason I don’t have a great answer is because we, the American people, by and large do not drink our wines at appropriate temperatures. Our whites are too cold and our reds are often far too warm.
How did this happen? Let’s take a trip back in time to the middle of the 19th century.
The 19th century was an important time in the history of wine. French wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy were beginning to be recognized as truly world-class outside of the exclusivity of the very, very rich. The Bordeaux Classification of 1855 also happened, which basically declared that all wine was not created equal. This is the period we take many of our wine habits and rituals from, one of them being the temperature at which we serve our wines.
The cellars of castles were underground caverns hewn from rock. They were a perfect place for general storage and an even better place to store wine, because these catacombs were always the same temperature, year-round; they were dug so deep into the earth that the air in never got far above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It just so happens that 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit is exactly the appropriate temperature for long-term wine storage.
Because there was no refrigeration, 55 degrees was as cold as the serving temperature ever got for wine. So when a white wine was served “cold,” it was actually served at cellar temperature, not at the arctic depths we serve our whites at today.
On the other hand, there was also no central heat in the massive castles and estates of the day. There may have been a fireplace or two, but dining halls tended to be colder and draftier than we are used to. When a red wine was served, it was brought up to room temperature, and because the rooms were cooler, room temperature was rarely above 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Think about some of the hot and stuffy rooms you’ve served your merlot or cabernet sauvignon in—the temperature in those rooms probably topped out at above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s no wonder that red wine is “too heavy” for some people.
My rule of thumb for all wine is: hug the middle. For whites, take them out of the fridge 20 minutes before serving. For reds, put them in the fridge for 10 minutes before serving. Try this at your next get-together and I guarantee you’ll have a more pleasurable wine drinking experience!
Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshperilo.
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