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Serving Wines: Why Wine Rules are Meant to be Broken

Serve white wines chilled, sparkling wines well-chilled, and reds at room temperature.” As far as wine guidelines go, these three little rules are among the most fundamental for beginning wine tasters. Yet as with most rules of thumb, these should never be applied to excess: while it may help novices avoid cocktail party blunders, for the dedicated wine enthusiast, it can more often act as obstacle rather than aid. Like everything else in life, if you don’t bend or even occasionally break the rules you end up missing out on some of the most memorable and rewarding experiences.

I myself love experimenting with wine’s serving temperature.  I learned very quickly in my wine drinking education that the temperature at which you serve a wine is more critical to your enjoyment of said wine than almost any other factor.  Only the food wine is served with has a more significant impact (Peanut butter and Merlot do not mix! That’s a rule of thumb you can adhere to.)  Slight differences in a wine’s temperature can critically alter your perception of it.  Many studies have shown that people offered the same glass of wine at two slightly different temperatures ?" only three degrees apart ?" almost always prefer the cooler glass.  If three degrees can have such an impact on a taster’s preferences, imagine what five or ten degrees can do.

So why do people prefer colder wines, and why do restaurants, bars, and other spirit-selling establishments often serve wines cold?  Allow me to let you in on one of the wine trades darkest secrets: serving cold or chilled wine conceals inherent weaknesses in its composition.  When served at a colder temperature, the individual flavors and aromas expressed by the wine are more difficult to distinguish. (Interestingly enough, dairy products also help camouflage the bitter and harsh tannins of red wines. This is why a tradition of serving wine and cheese side-by-side developed in Europe.)  In fact, wines can be chilled to such an extent that their taste disappears entirely. A wine’s behavior in a cold climate is not so dissimilar from a grizzly bear; icy temperatures will send them both into hibernation. This is why, people will prefer drinking many wines at cooler temperatures ?" it is more forgiving to the wine. However, for earnest imbibers interested in getting the most out of their wines, it is important to sample wines undisguised by this chill.

Now that you know why serving a wine over-chilled is problematic, what about over-heated, is such a thing possible? Short of putting your wine in the microwave, it is difficult for a bottle of wine to reach temperatures that will in essence cook it (WARNING: do not attempt making Mevushal wine at home).  Having said that, it is also true that when a wine glass gets too warm it may begin to lose some of its more pleasurable characteristics. Wine tends to be less refreshing at warmer temperatures, not as fruity, and harder to drink.  When people say you should serve red wines at room temperature, it does not mean 73 degrees! Keep it around 65 people.

From my own tasting experience, I have learned that I always prefer sparkling white wines served well-chilled, although roses show better a few degrees warmer than white sparklers. On the other hand, I like red sparkling wines only slightly chilled.  Full-bodied white wines, including many Israeli and California Chardonnays and Viogniers, I serve only slightly above room temperature.  I usually toss them in the fridge about a half hour before drinking to give them a light chill.  Light-bodied reds such as many French Syrahs, Margaret River Cabernets, and Pinot Noirs can also benefit from this all purpose emergency fridge chill.  For the most part, all my wines (except the more delicate older bottles) benefit from a 20-30 minute pre-uncorking refrigeration.  This allows the wine to slowly adjust to the temperature of the room in my glass.  In this manner, I can taste the wine at different temperatures and decide at what point that particular wine is drinking the best for my palate.

However, my preferences will probably not reflect yours.  Before I developed an open-mind, I used to always chastise my Grandmother for adding ice-cubes to every single glass of wine she poured irrespective of the quality of the bottle.  She would always simply reply, “I like my wine with an ice cube in it.” I finally threw up my hands in resignation, because that is just how she enjoys her wine.  Far be it from me to tell her how she should enjoy it.  Likewise, I encourage you to take my grandmother’s example (hopefully you won’t emulate her exactly) and experiment with the temperature of the wines you consume.  Start out cooler than you normally would, and let the wine gradually warm as you sample it.  You’ll find different characteristics expressing themselves at different temperatures and you can decide for yourself what temperature suits that wine best.  Be prepared, however, you may also discover one or two undesirable characteristics with respect to wines you had previously raved about ?" in which case turn the other cheek and lull those elements to sleep with refrigeration.  Hopefully, with time you will find wines that suit your palate through a range of temperatures, and you’ll be able to enjoy these as they evolve naturally in your glass.   

So let experimentation be the order of the day. I challenge you to explore temperatures at your next wine tasting extravaganza.  By bending the rules a little you just might learn to enjoy wine a little more.