I was walking a bottle of my restaurant’s excellent Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to table seven when I realized, mid-stride, how warm the bottle felt in my palm. Before I had a chance to turn back, however, the table saw me. I was locked in and had to present it.
The four people at the table were regulars, and the gentleman sitting at the head of the table peered at the label and touched the bottle. He immediately looked up at me.
“I know,” I said, apologetically, “would you like me to…”
“…put it on ice for about five minutes,” the gentleman whispered, finishing my sentence.
By the reaction of the other members of his small dinner party, you might have thought he had ordered the execution of his own mother. “Carl,” his wife shrieked. “But it’s red wine. Red.”
Carl and I shared a knowing smile as I crossed back to the bar and handed the bottle to the bartender, as he began to explain what he was doing to the rest of his table.
My number one pet peeve with wine, at a restaurant or at home, is always the same: temperature. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that nothing tastes good at room temperature. Tepid is the most unappealing temperature for anything to be served at. Wine doesn’t taste refreshing or complex. It just tastes hot and flat. Especially if the red wine has an alcohol content above 13 percent, which many warm climate wines do nowadays. All you will be able to taste on the finish will be the heat of the alcohol.
Back in the olden days, when wine was drunk in drafty castles, “room temperature” for most of the year was more along the lines of 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the temperature that all red wine should be served at.
Let’s do an experiment. Don’t worry, it involves drinking.
Get yourself two identical bottles of red wine. Stick one in the fridge for 20 minutes or so, and let the other one hang out on the kitchen counter. Open them up, pour and taste.
I guarantee that you will enjoy the one that is slightly cooler quite a bit more. Why? Because no matter how full or complex the red wine is, it is a refreshment. Wine is supposed to be enjoyable. If it’s so warm that it makes you gag every time you take a swallow, what’s the point?
Conversely, serving white wine at an arctic temperature is just as detrimental its respective taste. You won’t be able to taste anything because the chill from the liquid will be literally numbing to your tongue. This is especially important to remember with a white wine that is fuller in body and has some complexity to it.
Let’s try another science experiment. Take two bottles of Chardonnay out of the fridge. Let one hang out on the counter for a half-hour, getting a little warmer, and stick the other in the freezer. Pull it out before it freezes, but let its temperature lower a bit. Now taste them.
I defy you, no matter how hard you concentrate, to accurately describe the flavors in the wine that is colder. It is impossible. The wine that is still cool, but not ice-cold, will be perfectly sipable and yet still refreshing. It will also, however, be at a temperature where the flavors are at their peak. Flavor nuances will jump out that are being masked by the polar blast in the first glass.
The rule of thumb that I use for all wines, red or white, is this: the lighter the wine, the cooler it should be served, but nothing should be served above 60 degrees Fahrenheit at the very most.
Once I returned to the table, five minutes later, with the perfectly cooled bottle of Pinot Noir in hand, Carl and his guests had been calmed by his deft explanation. Be like Carl and fear not the judgment of “kooky” restaurant behavior. Your taste buds, and your guests, will ultimately thank you for it.