But mother always said: “White wine should be chilled. Red wine should be room temp.”
Time to loosen those proverbial corsets. On average, it was colder indoors when the custom of drinking red wine at room temperature arose. (Castles are drafty.) Likewise, even though white wines were traditionally consumed right out of the cellar, i.e., cold, they’re not intended to be served as cold as our refrigerators now allow.
Temperature affects what wine tastes and smells like to us, making alcohol, acid, and flavor more or less apparent. When a wine is cold, you will be able to perceive the alcohol less, but you also won’t be able to taste the wine’s actual flavors. The warmer a wine is, the more alcohol we perceive when drinking it. (The reason we chill cocktails, cheap beers and shots is precisely to suppress the alcohol taste.)
Which reds should you chill — and for how long? It’s complicated, but consider their body.
Body refers to the weight and intensity of a wine in your mouth. Generally speaking, big-bodied wine will be full in your mouth and powerful, a light-bodied one will be thinner, less intense. There’s also a correlation with color and opacity; if you hold a light bodied wine up to the light, you can usually see through it.
Chances are, even the bigger-bodied bottles of red you have stored at room temperature would benefit from a quick 45 minutes in the fridge, until they’re slightly cool to the touch. (Some wine experts say you shouldn’t drink any bottle of wine above 65º.)
That said, don’t go overboard, especially with expensive, more nuanced wines; you don’t want to cool down a nice $50 red wine too much, because then you might not experience the flavor subtleties you paid more money for. Unfortunately there’s no hard and fast rule for what to chill and how long. But light-bodied wines can certainly handle a little more time in the fridge — about an hour or so, until the bottle is starting to feel cold. So let’s start there.
Here are five wines to try chilled, and how.
Chill half of a bottle, and try a pour of that and a pour of the same wine at room temp side by side to experience firsthand how temperature affects your experience of a wine. Because the most important thing is what you like better.
The key word here is “try.” While some of these wines, like Lambrusco and Beaujolais, are traditionally consumed chilled, not all are. You can even experiment with cooling down a number of other reds not listed here — like Merlot, or a young Spanish Rioja. You can’t guarantee it’ll always be great, but what better way to learn than to try.
And in the meantime, you can say fun, wine-experty things like, “I think this wine shows itself best at a warmer temperature,” or “This wine drinks better a little colder.”
Lambruscos are very light-bodied sparkling wines made in northeastern Italy of Lambrusco grapes. Supposedly they were first produced by the Etruscans. As you may know, wine results when yeast eats sugary grape juice; if a winemaker stops that fermentation before the yeast are through, there will be sugar left in the wine. Some Lambruscos are sweet (meaning the winemaker has left sugar in the wine itself), some are medium-dry (meaning there’s some sugar in the wine) and some are dry (meaning there’s little to no sugar left in the wine itself).
Why is Lambrusco spritzy? The simplified answer is that the other by-product of fermentation is carbon dioxide. In order to make a sparkling wine like Lambrusco, winemakers first produce a still wine (with no sparkles) and then add more sugar and let the yeast go to town again — what’s called a “secondary fermentation” — this time trapping the gas in the wine.
The wine on the left, Riunite, was very popular in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s very sweet, mass-produced, and has given all Lambrusco a bad name. Don’t let it! Lambruscos like Lini 910, pictured center, exemplify all that’s great about the dry Lambruscos that are (thank goodness) becoming appreciated by American wine writers and consumers again. It’s as light in color as a cranberry cocktail, isn’t sweet, and is oh-so-refreshing. Just be sure you emphasize to a wineshop owner you want a dry Lambrusco.
Beaujolais is the wine that comes from the Beaujolais region of France. It’s made out of the Gamay grape, which produces some of the lightest-bodied reds out there. There is a general relationship between how big a wine’s body is and how long it needs to be aged in bottle before release. It’s Gamay’s petit personality that enables some Beaujolais to be released as quickly as possible after a harvest as “Beaujolais Nouveau.”
So you’ve probably seen the orange bottle on the left before in a grocery store around Thanksgiving. That’s George DuBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, another example of a European figuring out how to market a cheap wine to a big American audience.
But remember: Not all Beaujolais is Beaujolais Nouveau. (And not all Beaujolais Nouveau are George DuBeouf.) A lot of the best Beaujolais needs more time in bottles before it will be palatable. Both the Louis Jadot Chateau des Jacques Morgon 2009, pictured center, and the Fleurie Vieilles Vignes Marcel Joubert 2011, on the right, were complex and fruity, and lovely chilled.
3. Pinot Noir
Though some people first heard about it in Sideways, Pinot Noir is one of the world’s most revered wine grapes. It’s the basis of the red wines of Burgundy — one of France’s most iconic regions — and it’s planted lots of other places, including New Zealand, California, and Oregon. It’s lighter bodied and produces famously complex and delicious wines.
One of the problems with Pinot Noir wines is they’re labor-intensive to produce and therefore it’s hard to get good ones on the cheap. The Acacia Pinot Noir, pictured left, came in under $15 and was fantastic chilled — really bright, with characteristic Pinot Noir earthiness. The other two pictured likewise aren’t that expensive, which should be the name of the game, because chilling a wine will make it slightly less complex.
4. Barbera d’Asti
Also in northeastern Italy, the Barbera D’Asti region relies upon the Barbera grape, which is the third-most planted grape in Italy. Barbera D’Asti wines have relatively high acid, aren’t tremendously complicated and aren’t usually aged for a long time, which is all good news for chilled drinking.
Terre Sabaude, pictured left, didn’t have as big a personality as some of the other reds on this list but was hardly objectionable slightly chilled. It’d pair well with food.
White Zinfandel is a wine product derived from Zinfandel grapes, loaded with sugars and preservatives, and sold by the likes of Beringer and Franzia. This is not that, making this yet another example of a great wine whose good name has been sullied.
Zinfandel is arguably the flagship red grape of California — for a long time, in fact, people even thought it was native there. (Since genetic testing came about, it’s been discovered it’s the same as a red grape from Italy called Primitivo.) The biggest bodied of the wines on this list by a long shot, Zinfandels are not often consumed cold, nor should they all be.
As with the Pinot Noirs, you can break the bank with Zinfandel — and there’s no need to for these purposes. You want something inexpensive, bright, and jammy. Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley is a great place to source from. Do not judge the Dead Bolt Zinfandel, on the left, by its garish bottle; it was dee-licious cold.