We Americans typically serve and drink our wines at the wrong temperatures, the whites too cold and the reds too hot. I object to those practices because good wines can’t—and don’t—taste right when they’re too hot or too cold. And for that small category of truly great wines, it’s a crying shame to drink them too warm or too cold. Both extremes prevent us from appreciating and savoring their greatness.
An extremely cold wine, such as a bottle of Chardonnay that’s been fully immersed in ice of in an ice-and-water mixture for 30 minutes or in a cold refrigerator for more than an hour or two, will be between 32° and 36° F. At such a low temperature, unfortunately, that wine can show you only a mere fraction of its many aromas and flavors, until and unless you allow it to warm up a lot. You can warm a glass of wine quickly by cupping the bowl of the glass in your hands, if you happen to own a pair of hands that are warmer than 32° F. If your wine’s too cold but you’re in no hurry, the room temperature should eventually warm it up. In any case, take the bottle out of the damn ice bucket and leave it out.
Doing so in the restaurant, though, can lead to a cute little minuet between you and the waiter if you’re dining in a place that is 100% determined that its customers should drink their white wines cold, or else! This happens to me more often than I care to think about. My glass of white wine will be too cold, so I’ll take the bottle out of the ice and put it (the bottle, not the ice) on the table. I’ll go back to my conversation, or if I’m by myself, to whatever wine catalog I’m reading.
Next thing I know, without my having heard or seen anything, the bottle is back in the ice. Hmmm. I take it out a second time and put it back on the table a second time. Now I’m beginning to get suspicious. Is this restaurant haunted? I watch the bottle out of the corner of my eye while pretending to read my catalog. This time I catch the waiter or waitress cold-handed, trying to take it off the table a second time to put it back in the ice. Usually, at that point, all you have to do is calmly explain that you didn’t put the bottle on the table by mistake, but rather on purpose, and he’ll buy into your eccentricity in hopes of being rewarded with a big tip.
Sometimes, though, you have to do a little jaw-boning. The waiter will explain to you in short, easy-to-understand, well enunciated, declarative sentences, “Sir, this is white wine. White wines are served cold.” That speech patter is familiar to me because I just got back from my college reunion. The undergraduates who worked at the event spoke to us that way, which, incidentally, is how you’re supposed to speak to the mentally retarded. (Come to think of it, they might have a point.)
So you try telling the waiter, in a confident enough tone, that you’re the customer and this is how you want your wine, and the customer is always right, etc. Usually that will do the trick, but not every time. In that tiny number of cases, you might have to pull out all the stops, explaining with a big smile on your face that your generosity as a tipper is legendary, provided that you are allowed to drink your white wine at a temperature at which you can actually smell and taste the wine, but that if you are forced to drink your wine at a temperature at which you can’t smell or taste it at all, such as freezing-cold (here you might want to interject that you read somewhere that wines can get hypothermia, just like humans; see below), not only do you not intend to pay for the wine but also he will observe that your legendary tipping generosity can turn instantly into parsimony, and further that you happen to be on very cordial terms with both the mayor and the police chief of whatever town you happen to be in, so would he please stop putting your wine back in the ice and tell all buspersons, captains, and anyone else likely to walk by that you’re a weirdo who doesn’t want his white wine cold, but who claims he’s a big tipper, so can we just let him be?
In fairness, there are at least four situations in which ice buckets can play a useful role. The first situation is when you have a bottle of white or rosé that’s not cool enough. Perhaps it’s been in your car and there’s no fridge nearby, or you want to start drinking the wine right away, sooner than a fridge could lower the wine’s temperature. (As an aside, I’m proud to say I really like good, dry rosés, and I prefer to drink them at white wine temperatures, around 55°.) So for those situations where you wish to cool down your white or rosé quickly, an ice bucket is the perfect device. But fill the bucket with a lot more water than ice.
The second situation arises when the ambient air temperature, whether indoors or out, is warm or even hot, for instance if you’re having a summer picnic in direct sunlight. Again, an ice bucket, but always with more water than ice, is the perfect solution, for red wines as well. Take the bottle out of the bucket if the wine starts to get too cold, and put it back in if it starts to warm up more than you want.
When I pour our wines at wine tastings in warm weather, I’ll often be at the edge of a tent, and my luck usually has me pouring with the sun full on me and our wines. When that happens, I constantly rotate all the wines we’re showing, moving them into and out of the ice water, Pinot Noirs as well as all the whites, to keep them as close as possible to the right temperature. It helps if you have about six hands.
A third (somewhat “emergency”) use for ice buckets is for cooling down red wines in restaurants that seem to have nothing but warm of hot bottles of red on hand, or whose staffs believe that hot is best for red wines. It’s actually sort of fun to see the expression on the faces of some of these people when you ask for an ice bucket for your red wine. You usually can get them to honor your request by claiming, “I own a winery.” Or you can make an even more outrageous claim: “I know what I’m doing.”
The fourth valid use for ice buckets is for champagnes, which I prefer to drink quite cold, say around 40° F.
But to return to my belief that it’s a mistake to drink still, i.e., non-bubbly, white wines too cold, it shouldn’t surprise us that lowering a wine’s temperature almost to the freezing point stuns a wine. It certainly would stun you or me if we were put in ice for that long, and it’s the same for wines. It’s called hypothermia. Wines—and humans—just don’t work right at those very cold temperatures. But the good news for wine lovers is that wine recovers immediately from the effects of (short-term, at least) hypothermia as soon as it warms up. At any rate, wine recovers better or faster than you or I would.
A fancy way of categorizing the above comparison between wines and humans is to say that I “anthropomorphized” the wine. Well, let me tell you that’s a big taboo among the chemistry professors who run the winemaking department at the University of California at Davis, our country’s biggest and best known training ground for winemakers. Their approach seems to be—and I know they wouldn’t be thrilled with the following description any more than they like anthropomorphizing wine—that wine is not a living thing (which it emphatically is) but merely a sort of soup of water, alcohol, chemicals, minerals, ions, esters, phenols, and other substances, and that it is “made” by white-coated chemists operating in pristine, sterile control rooms.
These scientists make and implement specific designs, adding this, subtracting that, processing all wines through huge, shiny machines in the same way totally fake, manufactured beverages such as disgusting colas and other artificial soda pops are made, i.e., assembled from the ground up by taking some water from your city water supplies, shooting some carbon dioxide into it for bubbles, throwing in some sugar (or fake sugar so it can be called “diet”), some chemicals for “flavoring,” some other chemicals for artificial color, then flooding every known retail outlet with cans and bottles of this stuff, even sending it all around the world to poor, unsuspecting foreigners who are unfamiliar with our bizarre customs, and paying three or four surviving monster broadcast companies hundreds of millions of dollars to brainwash our citizenry into going out and spending their hard-earned money—or should I say the 49 percent of their money they still have after the U.S. government and the California government have helped themselves to the first 51 percent—on that garbage.
I happen to be an ardent believer in freedom, but when I see otherwise sane, well-adjusted adults drinking soda pop I have to wonder if society has gone just a wee bit too far with this “consenting adults” thing. Kids, I can understand. After all, soda pop is cloyingly sweet. But adults, shouldn’t they know better? This is just one item in the long list of things I will never understand.
Let me close by summarizing my guidelines on correct wine drinking temperatures:
- Wines are often served and consumed too hot or too cold in this country.
- White wines, which are usually, but not always, the ones served too cold, and rosés both should be served cool to the touch, say around 55° F.
- Red wines, which usually are served too hot because people misinterpret the old “room temperature” guideline, should be served cool too, in fact only slightly warmer than white wines. Let’s call this 60° F.
- The main exception: Champagnes and other sparking wines, which are best when quite cold.
This essay is adapted from Mr. Jensen’s 2001 newsletter.