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Why wine temperatures matter

Temperature is an important, and often overlooked, variable for wine.

Temperature is an important, and often overlooked, variable for wine.

Wines are like opera singers. Whether white, red, champagne or dessert, each sings an aria, but hits the notes of that aria purely and with greater power when poured at the right temperature.

Yes, a cellar is an ideal place to store wines so they sleep silently and peacefully until their time has come to shine.

Yes, white wines should be served cold, red wines should be ‘room temperature.’

Ultimately though, these are just rules of thumb. Whether cellaring or serving, specific temperature guidance helps ensure you and your guests enjoy something special in the glass.

Cellaring

Plenty of websites go into detail about establishing and organizing cellars. Instead of taking a deep dive into cellaring, here are some high, hard points worth noting when you consider wine storage:

Cool and stable wins the day: If your cellar temperatures are too hot, you’ll cook your wine. If they’re too cold, you can also damage and diminish flavors and aromas. Ideally, red wine should be relaxing at 10-16º C (50-55º F), while white wine is best stored at around 7º C (45º F). Make sure there are no wild temperature fluctuations either.

Lay your bottles on their side: This will ensure the wine is touching the cork, preventing it from drying out, which would allow oxygen in and turn your wine into high-priced vinegar. Note also that wine labels should be kept facing upwards – that way, you can read the label without disturbing the bottle. That’s important because, as a wine ages and throws sediment (which is especially the case with reds), you will know exactly where that sediment has settled – consistently – throughout your collection. This makes it super easy to move your bottles (horizontally, of course) to prevent disturbing the sediment. Use a proper decanting basket and process to ensure a clean and crisp pour of an older vintage.

Humidity is great, but not too much: Like everything, there is a balance to be achieved. Too much humidity, and labels will peel, mold will grow, and your bottles will effectively be unidentifiable. On the other hand, if the environment is too dry, the cork will crack and air will leak into the bottle (resulting in the aforementioned vinegar). In an ideal world, stick to about 70 per cent relative humidity, with a leeway of 5 per cent either way.

Darkness is your friend: This sounds ominous, but in the case of wine, sunlight – specifically ultraviolet light – destroys the chemical compounds that lend a wine its aroma profile and structure. Hence the reason many good wines come in coloured glass, and also the need to store them in a cellar. But, just to be extra cautious, choose incandescent lights over fluorescent when outfitting your cellar as the latter throws ultraviolet light.

If all else fails, get a wine fridge: For those new to wine, all the points mentioned above (and probably the whole idea of a cellar) sound like way too much money and hassle. Fortunately, there is no lack of choice when it comes to wine fridges. From eight-bottle to 200-bottle fridges, a wine fridge exists for every budget and every level of enthusiasm. This not only makes it easy to store your wines properly but also ensures your wines stay the way they were intended with very minimal effort.

Achieving perfect wine temperatures can be tricky, but some simple guidance helps. (Photo Credit: James Temple)

Achieving perfect wine temperatures can be tricky, but some simple guidance helps. (Photo Credit: James Temple)

Serving Temperatures

To build on the opera singer analogy, serving a big Bordeaux or Barolo cold would be like stuffing the mouth of a tenor with cotton balls. The result is underwhelming and, depending on how much you paid for your tickets, downright upsetting. Don’t do that to yourself or your wines.

As a way to preserve the fresh, fruity nature of light dry white wines and rosés (think Soave, Txakoli, or Cotes de Provence, for example), as well as the lift and effervescence of sparkling wines, serve at 4-7º C (40-50º F). This temperature range is also appropriate for white dessert wines; keeping them properly chilled preserves their balance without stifling the vividness of their aromas. There’s nothing worse than warm dessert wine (such as Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, or Riesling Beerenauslese), which only serves to accentuate a one-dimensional sweetness. Yuck.

For full-bodied white wines (say white Rioja or Bordeaux) and light, fruity reds (like Beaujolais), serve at 10-16º C (50-60º F). This helps to highlight the layered aromas of fruit, spices, earth and wood, but still keep the wines refreshing and enjoyable.

For big, robust, full-bodied reds and Port, an ideal temperature window is somewhere warmer than a cellar, but not as warm as what we know today as ‘room temperature.’ To put a number range on it: somewhere between 16 and 18º C (60-65º F). This will help the rich oaky-ness and spicy nature of Cabernet or Syrah feel less aggressive on the palate while maintaining the complexity of the nose and keeping the aromas of alcohol in check.

Achieving wine temps is somewhat trickier than this simple guidance suggests, but technology is your friend: get yourself a food service infrared thermometer (or another newfangled device, such as this bottle cuff) to make accurate temperatures a snap.

In the absence of such technologies, and all things being equal, it’s better to err on the side of cooler, rather than warmer. Even the best singers have to warm up, and it’s better to have your wine come into its own, to applause and the calls of ‘Bravo’, rather than to be outright panned at the hands of a persnickety critic.

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