Wine is a very precious fluid. It can be used as everything from a medicine, to an irreplaceable cooking ingredient. Wine traveled with the Roman Legions, was present at the table of Hippocrates, crossed the ocean with Columbus, circumnavigated the world with Magellan, and Drake, and present at most other important historical moments. Moreover, the process involved in raising grapes and turning them into wine has not changed very much in all those years. One might think that after all this time, there would be little confusion about what is the best temperature to serve wine. You would be wrong….
The average layperson is usually under the impression that red wine should be served at room temperature (too warm, especially in summer), and white wine should be served right out of the ‘fridge (also incorrect…). Many a fine wine collection has been ruined by a simple lack of knowledge.
Temperature is of special concern to people who buy wine online, or have to transport it for a significant amount of time. Extremes in heat and cold during shipping can destroy your wine before you ever get it home. Temperature fluctuations can have a negative effect on both the aroma, and general chemical characteristics of wine. Factors that are adversely affected are Oxygen Uptake, Browning Reactions in white wines, ethyl carbamate formation, and decline of free SO2 in white wines. This entire technical jargon means that extremes in temperature will affect the aroma, taste and appearance of your wine adversely. Extreme temperatures have an exponential effect, so small changes can have large impacts. For instance, a rise of 14 °F will double the speed of browning in white wine.
Extreme cold does not usually do any permanent damage to wine. Even if it freezes, wine can usually recover from cold. The biggest danger is that the bottle will break during the thawing process, or force out the cork. Other than that, freezing has no lasting effect on wine. You can even chill wine, allow it to warm to the proper serving temperature, the re-chill it, with no permanent effects. Ideally, wine fairs best when kept at normal cellar temperatures of around 55°F. However, if that is not possible, too cold is much better than too warm.
Serving wine too cold is a different story. If a wine is below its optimum serving temperature, the various aromas will not be expressed, and since the sense (no jocularity intended) of taste and smell are interlinked, this will make the wine taste lifeless. The characteristics of the wine will not come out. Many a good wine has gotten a bad rap simply because it was served too cold. Many times, restaurants are guilty of serving wines too cold, especially white wines, which they often insist on serving in a bucket of ice. They are also often confused about what is the best temperature to serve wine. Even simple white wines like Chenin Blanc, and Savignon Blancs will have their flavors and aromas minimized by over-chilling, and more complex wines like Chalbis can have their flavor practically destroyed. Luckily, there is a cure for this. Wine recovers quite rapidly from cold. You can warm it to the correct temperature by cupping the wineglass between your hands for a few minutes. You will know when it is the right temperature to drink because the aromas will come alive. A good rule of thumb is that if a wine has little bouquet, it is probably too cold.
Much worse is wine that has been exposed to extreme heat. The wine literally bakes. Wine that has baked is called “maderized”. Heat this extreme causes the volume of wine in the bottle to expand, creating pressure in the bottle. This puts pressure on the cork, allowing oxygen to seep in, and causing oxidation in the bottle. This destroys the wine, permanently. Heat exposure to a lesser degree, such as in improper storage, causes rapid aging… not a good thing for most wines. Damage from heat is irreversible. Wine that is served too warm will emphasize its imperfections. Red wines will develop harsh tannins, and taste stewed, and prune-like. Whites will develop a caramelized, candied character, and taste flatter.
As a rule, white wines are more susceptible to damage from temperatures than reds. The safest way to protect your wines, red, or white, is to store them on their sides, in a dark, non-humid place at near 55-65 degrees. Any type of wine will be safe at these temperatures. As for serving temperatures, it depends on the type of wine.
The following covers the temperature wines should be served:
Spicy reds such as Cabernet, Syrah, and Burgundy, etc…63°F-65°F.
Light to medium reds like Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, etc …55°F-61°F
Fruity reds like Beaujolais….54°F
Full-bodied/oaked wine like White Burgundy….52°F
Light to medium whites, such as Chardonnay, Semillion, Chablis, etc…48°F-50°F
Sweet/Sparking wines and Champagne….43°F-47°F.
By using these guidelines, you will always be close when determining what is the best temperature to serve wine.