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Serving temps can confuse the best of us – but does it really matter?

The short answer to that question is, if you want to get the most out of your wine, yes. If you don’t really care and want your wine cold, then no, but you might be missing out.

I always tell friends and clients that, “you like what you like – I am here to guide you to help improve your wine experience, but I’m not here to change your taste preferences.” And that’s 100% true. If you don’t like red wine, under any circumstances and you don’t want to try it – I won’t ask you to try it, chilled or otherwise.

However, sometimes I have clients that wonder, “could I improve the taste of this wine in any way?” Perhaps by serving it with specific foods, or by chilling it, or not chilling it? I’ve also had the experience of pouring a bottle of wine client’s have had before, but when I serve it they think it tastes better than it has in the past, and they aren’t quite sure why.

Temperature could be a big reason for this. So let’s get to the why.

Why It Matters

When a simple wine is cold, it tastes more refreshing and we appreciate that quality of it, rather than noticing it tastes like a bland wine. When said wine warms up in our glass, it’s not quite as enjoyable – especially after tasting it ice cold.

Think of a light bodied, Pinot Grigio.

Especially if it’s from the area of Veneto, Italy where the wines are mass produced and quite simple. There will be some notes of pear, apple and lemon and that’s about as complex as it gets. I’m not saying these are bad wines, just simple wines. When served at room temperature, they may taste like slightly flavored lemon water. When served well chilled, at about 45º F, they will taste refreshing and bright.

What would you rather have, refreshing and bright, or a bland watery beverage?

Now think of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or Sancerre. Those are light bodied wines but packed with aromatics and flavor! When served at the same temperature – we very much so enjoy them but for different reasons that if we enjoyed them slightly warmer in the light-medium body temperature zone of 43-50ºF. At 50º F you will begin to notice more grassy or herbal notes in the wine – calling cards of the Sauvignon Blanc grape. Perhaps even a petrol note (if you find this on a wine, and you don’t like it, it will burn off as it is exposed to oxygen). The category for these wines is technically 43-50ºF, so feel free to experiment with cooler and warmer temps.

What About Cold Reds?

Alternatively, when a wine is too cold, it can mask certain nuances and delicate flavor profiles, as well as the aromas, in wine. So if you have a very well made, and perhaps even slightly aged Cabernet Sauvignon, you will want to serve that just under room temperature, about 65ºF.

Now, WSET claims that heavy wines should be served between 59-64ºF, I think that it’s acceptable, especially if the wine is aged, to serve it closer to actual room temper (who lives in 64 degrees? Your AC bill must be outrageous), at 67-68º – try not to let it get above 70º prior to drinking though – that’s another blog post, so just trust me for now.

So back to the Cabernet Sauvignon, let’s say you kept a bottle of Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon in your refrigerator, (not recommended as most fridges are set to 32ºF, if you must do this, place it in your door which is the warmest area of the fridge), and take it out to drink right away. That Duckhorn will have notes of black figs, ripe jammy raspberries, some chocolate and dried herb notes, licorice, and baking spices. This wine will have moderate acidity and high alcohol.

However, because you are drinking it at likely 43ºF or below, you will not get quite the same velevety mouthfeel, and you will likely only taste and smell the most apparent, and largest contributors to aroma and flavor – the fruit. Forget noticing the spices, chocolate, and dried herbs. You’ll only be able to get the in-your-face fruit bomb that makes up this wine because the cool temperature masks the more delicate aromas that balance out the fruit.

Furthermore, that alcohol may not be noticed in the taste, but when you swallow a cold and high alcohol wine, especially one with 50% new oak like Duckhorn, to me it’s almost like taking a shot. The wine is so cold you can barely taste it and then before you know it, it hits the back of your throat right away and just burns. So sip slowly.

Now – take that wine up quite a few degrees to 65ºF, (put it in your refrigerator 20 minutes before you’d like to drink it) and you’ll be able to notice those cocoa and spice notes.

Furthermore, you’ll be able to smell the wine. When a wine is too cold, the aroma molecules sit still and won’t release until they warm up. Have you ever smelled Pinot Grigio when its room temperature and when it’s cold? There’s more to smell at room temperture, but it’s really not a lot. Maybe some lemon juice? This is why Pinot Grigio and other very light body and unoaked wines do well a very cool temperatures.

Try the same thing with a bottle of Cabernet, or Shiraz, there’s so much more to smell and taste when the wine is at a warmer temperature.

What if I love Drinking Reds Well Chilled?

If you typically drink cold reds, like I said earlier – continue to do so! I’m here to guide your wine experience to encourage new ideas that might make it better, I’m not here to change your mind. All I ask is that, while you are drinking, notice what that wine tastes and smells like in the beginning when it’s cold, and after it’s warmed up a bit. Notice the differences.

Perhaps you drink your reds cold because don’t like how they taste otherwise. Maybe the flavor is too jammy or flabby (hot climate Cabernet Sauvignon’s may not be for you after all – check out Bordeaux or from the Willamette which are more cool climate styles that will have some more bell pepper notes, but not the jammy fruit-bombs and they will typically be lower alcohol too).

So How do I Remember This?

You’ve got enough on your plate – I don’t expect anyone to remember 59-64ºF for heavy body red wines. So think about it like this

Sweet & Champagne – coldest & Heaviest Reds – Warmest

In between you know the scale:

  • Your lightest bodied and least aromatic whites are right behind the sparkling.
  • Then the oaky whites (Chardonnay from California, Fumé Blancs, etc).
  • Then your lightest red wines (Willamette Pinot Noir, Burgundian Pinot Noir, Chianti’s, etc).

Don’t worry so much about the temperatures other than the coldest temps will be your refrigerator door, and the rest will be 20 minutes out or in the fridge prior to consuming.