Climate Control

Climate Control

Many things go into making wine enjoyable besides the wine itself: the food it’s matched with, the sparkle of the glassware, the company on hand, a good story about where the wine came from. But high on the list—and too often overlooked—is the temperature of the wine, which can mean the difference between a glorious glass and a boring beverage.

For both reds and whites, serving temperatures that are either too warm or too cold can take the fun right out of the bottle, stifling the aromatics, exaggerating the alcohol and acidity, making the fruit disappear and reducing complexity to a monotone. The temperature of a wine can have almost as much to do with the success of a food pairing as the food.

Getting temperature right doesn’t require fancy technology or obsessive behavior, just paying a little attention to detail. At home and in restaurants—which often get it wrong, too—some simple steps can help get temperature on track.

Try this at home

Here are two simple experiments that should convince you of the power of temperature, and, fortunately, both involve drinking wine. For experiment one, thoroughly chill a bottle of white wine—a highly aromatic variety, such as an assertive Sauvignon Blanc or a floral Gewürztraminer. Open the bottle and pour a small glass, then return the wine to the fridge; 10 minutes later, take it out and pour another glass; repeat two more times. The lineup of four glasses, spaced across half an hour of warming, will be hard to recognize as the same wine—the differences in aromas and flavors will be striking.

For experiment two, take a normal room temperature red, somewhere around 70°F, and pour it into four small glasses. Let glass one be the reference standard. Drop an ice cube into glass two, stir gently with a spoon for three seconds and then remove the cube; do the insta-chill treatment for six seconds in glass three, 10 seconds in glass four. That should produce about a 15–20° degree spread, and again, the wines will come across markedly different. (Other than for our pseudoscientific purposes, chilling wine with ice is not recommended as the wine can become diluted.)

These unscientific procedures may help explain why that bottle of Zinfandel tasted so terrific at the winery (where the tasting room staff control the temperature) and so one-note at home (after sitting near the stove while you cooked dinner), or why the very same Chardonnay you loved last week at Chez Bacchanal (where the sommelier is paid to worry about such things) seems so austere and one-dimensional at home (right out of the fridge).

What a difference a degree makes

What’s going on here? Beyond the chemistry details, what’s changing is balance, the harmonious (or not so harmonious) interplay of all the elements that make up wine—fruit, alcohol, acid, tannin, sweetness, oak and so on. Winemakers go to a lot of trouble to build balance into their wines, and a few degrees this way or that can undermine all that careful work.

For both reds and whites, too cool a temperature means that volatile aromatics—compounds that escape from the wine into the air—stay put in the wine and never make their way to your nose or mouth. The fruit, or its complexity, is diminished, and the acidity gets accentuated. With too warm a temperature, the volatiles vaporize before you can enjoy them, leaving behind a heightened perception of alcohol and any imperfections in the wine—a little hint of sulfur preservatives here, a whiff of something varnishy there.

Either way, balance gets unhinged and all those separate elements in a wine beat each other up on your sensory turf. Unbalanced wines are distracting, unsatisfying and anything but refreshing—and a relatively minor temperature skew can make all the difference.

The wine temperature ballpark

So, what’s the “right” serving temperature? It depends.

A century or more ago, when many of today’s wine appreciation conventions were being established, wine drinkers rarely had access to refrigeration or to the luxury of central heating, which meant very little control over wine temperature. Wine, white or red, was consumed at the temperature at which it was stored. Serving a wine at “cellar temperature” was likely to mean something in the 50s; “room temperature” could be 65°F in foggy London and 85°F in sunny Provence.

Aging wine gracefully

For bottles to age well and hold steady for a couple of years until you get around to them, they need a wine-friendly environment.

The idea of cellaring your wine may conjure up visions of 50,000-bottle collections and warehouse-sized facilities, but your three prized cases of special bottles deserve the same ecosystem. Your cellar doesn’t necessarily have to be huge, ornate or even underground.

Storage temperature is by far the most important factor. Warmer temperatures speed up a host of biochemical processes in grapes and wine, from the vineyard to the bottle. Unfortunately, adding heat doesn’t accelerate everything harmoniously; overheating your wine can kill the fruit long before the tannin subsides. Excessively cool temperatures slow things down, and once again, not all things slow evenly.

For long-term storage, aim for a constant temperature around 55°F range. A few degrees warmer won’t immediately hurt a bottle, but it will shorten its aging potential. Big temperature swings aren’t helpful, even if the average is in the ideal range. If your wine has spent a few months at 80°F, consider drinking it immediately (after chilling it down to a proper serving temperature).

Humidity matters, too, more for your corks than for your wine. Something around 70% relative humidity is best; this moisture level prevents cork shrinkage, which can result in evaporation and oxidation. Since most ageworthy wines still come with natural cork stoppers, keeping them happy is important. This is also the reason to lay down wine bottles on their sides or upside down. That 70% humidity target may seem like an invitation to mold, but any downside to the moisture—most often, deteriorating labels—remains outside the bottle, not inside with your wine.

Light (especially ultraviolet) also speeds up some biochemical processes, so anything beyond a soft glow over long stretches should be avoided. The final piece of conventional storage wisdom is avoiding vibration; don’t store your wine right by the subway tracks. What motion does is not so clear, but in any case, let your wine take a break.

Creative spacing

Major wine collectors remodel their houses to create proper quarters for their bottles, or send them off-site to commercial wine-storage operations—both good things to consider if your case count gets up into the triple digits. Most of us, however, will claim some existing space in our home and outfit it for wines that need a place to grow older contentedly.

Basements are obvious choices; any space below ground level has natural insulation. Laundry rooms (not right next to the dryer!), storage areas and crawl spaces are good candidates; remember, temperature trumps elegance every time. Houses, particularly multistory houses, always have some places that are cooler and more sheltered than others—think under stairs or at the back of large closets.

Whatever the shape and size of a potential cellar, shelving and storage rack options can make amazing use of small areas. The space occupied by a standard washing machine, for instance, translates to about 13 cases of wine; a standard refrigerator, double that.

Check out the likely areas with a thermometer, looking both for temperature and constancy. If your future cellar is just fine most of the year, but too hot or cold for a couple months in a particular season, consider using a space heater now and then, or a fan; perhaps a humidifier, or a dehumidifier. Don’t be afraid to tinker a bit; your wine will thank you.

If you’re looking to make things easy on yourself, invest in a cellar that mimics conditions in the best wine caves. A great one to consider is a EuroCave, which offers control of everything you would expect from a natural cellar: temperature, humidity, U.V. protection, ventilation and vibration. You can go as grandiose as a custom-built furniture piece or as small as a compact kitchen unit.

The bottom line is this: If you’re willing to invest money in wine, be willing to put some money into proper storage. One of the great things about a home cellar is tripping across some long-lost bottle that turns out to be a real treat. You can lose track of your wine, but your wine won’t forget how it has been stored.

For more information on EuroCaves or to consult a wine cellar specialist about your racking and storage options, click here.

Ideal serving temperature for wine

The first thing to note is that the vast majority of wines are not likely to taste their best straight from the fridge or right out of the dining room wine rack. Whites probably want a little time outside the refrigerator before pouring, and many reds can use a few minutes in that same fridge to cool down before popping the cork.

The next thing to observe is that the prime temperature zones for whites and reds aren’t that far apart. Except for a few wine styles, the red-white gap is somewhere between 10 and 15°, which seems very slight. Yet that same 15° temperature variance is what separates medium-rare from medium-well done beef, and getting that temperature right is worth insisting on.

It's suggested that most of us drink our whites a little too cold and our reds a little too warm. That’s certainly true of home wine consumption, where bottles are just grabbed and opened as the need arises, without any checking of vital signs. Worse yet, red wines that are a big deal—an expensive bottle, an older vintage—may be taken from cellar storage (residing at a good serving temperature) and displayed for all to see for a couple hours, long enough to get overly warm.

Most wine-oriented restaurants try to stay on top of temperature, but nobody’s perfect. Hyper-chilled whites have a chance to warm up in the glass, especially with hands cupped on the bowl. But too many reds arrive too warm and then get warmer. It’s not too much to ask for an ice bucket if you are laying out the bucks for a serious red wine; and it’s not a crime—honest!—to discreetly swirl some ice from your drinking water in that overheated $17 by-the-glass Cabernet.

You’re the drinker—you decide

Naturally, the target temperatures in the table come with a lot of fine print and qualifications. Once poured, wines warm up over time, so what gets consumed falls into a temperature range, not a precise temperature; guides that try to tell you that a certain white should be served at exactly 47°F never explain how you’re supposed to keep it there. Natural ambient warming in the glass is one reason to err on the cool side when the bottle is opened; warming it up is easier than chilling it back down.

The most enjoyable temperature for a particular wine also varies with the temperature in the room, or the temperature of the season; whites can benefit from some extra chill in the summertime, for example, and so can even the biggest reds.

Most important, individual palates and penchants vary. The best way to calibrate your own preferences is to get one of the wine or bottle thermometers on the market and start taking your wine’s temperature. If it turns out you really adore Pinot Grigio at 50°F, a few trials can determine how long the next bottle needs to sit out before you drink it. And check the climate in the places you store wine—the refrigerator, cellar, dining room or kitchen. Knowing the starting temperature can suggest how to put your wine in a better mood before you drink it.

Wine drinkers don’t get to control many things about their wines; what’s in the bottle is pretty much what’s in the bottle, for better or worse. You can, however, exercise some climate control. A little home testing—otherwise known as wine drinking—can put you and your palate much more in touch with your inner thermometer.

Published on December 16, 2011