What Temperature Should Red Wine Be Served At? Become an Expert on Chilling Red Wine

what temperature should red wine be served at

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By Molly Rubinstein

 It is a balmy summer’s night. The cicadas are chirping and dinner has just been served on the patio. Out of habit, you reach for a glass of crisp and cold white wine to help assuage the heat. But is this really the only option? Why not serve a refreshing chilled red wine instead?

Gaining recognition and popularity both in restaurants and at home is the relatively new concept of chilling red wines. Before throwing your hands into the air and claiming that wine professionals have finally lost their minds, take a look at the following breakdown of why and when to chill your reds.

Before every home had electricity and digital thermostats, room temperature usually hovered around 60°F. Today, room temperature is much closer to 70°F, which is far too warm for most wine. When you chill a red wine, you bring it back down to 60°, right around cellar temperature where its beautiful flavors can come out. Red wines are not only capable of being chilled, but can prove more satisfying and refreshing than many a white wine served in this manner.

Why Is It Important to Find the Perfect Wine Temperature?

If a wine is served at the wrong temperature, chances are that you are not enjoying the wine and all of its subtler nuances to the fullest extent. You may even think that you don’t like a style of wine at all! This applies both to wines that are served too warm and wines that are served too cold. When a wine is served at room temperature or warmer, the perception of alcohol is increased, resulting in a flabby mouthfeel, while fruit flavors and non-fruit aromas are dulled. When a wine is served too cold, it can taste more astringent and less flavorful. Serving a wine at the correct temperature for the varietal can bring out the best in that wine.

The Science Behind Serving Different Wines at Different Temperatures

Red and white wines have different chemical compositions that lead to different perceptions of their sensory traits. White wines are served chilled due to the higher proportions of aldehydes, esters, and terpenes. When a wine with high levels of these compounds is chilled properly, the compounds fill the upper bowl of the wine glass, allowing you to smell and taste them more easily. At lower temperatures, these compounds react also with the air in the top of the glass (called the headspace), giving the wine more fruitiness or acidity, depending on the varietal. However, if you serve the white wine too warm, the compounds don’t interact as much with the headspace, and the flavors become dull.  

With red wines, only those with lower tannin levels and polyphenols benefit from a chill. Polyphenols are a compound in grape skins that are present in all red wines; darker red wines that were pressed with the skin on tend to have more of this compound than light red wines. If a red wine that has elevated levels of polyphenols and tannins becomes too chilled, the result is more astringency and a harsher mouthfeel. On the other hand, when these darker, more tannic red wines (as well as those lower in tannin) are consumed too warm, the alcohol takes over the headspace of a glass and the fruitiness is diminished.

For these reasons it’s been determined that wines with lower tannin levels are best with a slight (but not too severe) chill. And since oak aging adds tannins to a wine, wines with less oak presence–or better yet, aged in stainless steel with no oak contact–will be less tannic and will respond well to chilling.

Wines that are younger and fruitier also benefit from chilling. When a fruity wine is chilled, the refreshing flavors become more noticeable and are able to play a more prominent role on the palate. These wines also tend to be more simply structured, and are thus more easily overpowered by the alcohol presence. With a lower temperature, the taste of the wine’s alcohol recedes, resulting in more accessible flavors.

A good rule of thumb to sum all this up is that red wines that are low in tannin, less oaky, young in age, and fruity (and often light) in style generally benefit from being served colder. Additionally, wines with a touch of sweetness benefit from being cooled down, as the lower temperature helps lessen the impact of the sweetness, making the wine taste more balanced.

The Best Red Wines to Chill

About 90% of the wines consumed worldwide are young and fruity, and thus should be served at least slightly chilled. In fact, an overwhelming number of varietals from France, California, and Italy are fruity, often enjoyed young, and low in tannins; they are perfect candidates for being chilled.

Generally speaking, reds that benefit from chilling should be served between 54°F and 60°F. Beaujolais, Valpolicella, Dolcetto, and Côtes du Rhône are on the lower end of the scale, whereas Chinon, Chianti, Pinot Noir, Rioja, and Zinfandel are on the higher end.

French:

  • Gamay (Both Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages, as well as bigger and sturdier Cru Beaujolais)
  • Chinon or other Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley
  • Grenache from the Côtes du Rhône

California:

  • Zinfandel (Young and fruity versions, ideally with slightly lower alcohol levels and from cooler climates like Mendocino in Northern California)
  • Pinot Noir (Fruit-forward styles preferable over more mineral-driven Burgundian styles)
  • Gamay

Italian:

  • Frappato
  • Valpolicella
  • Dolcetto
  • Chianti (Lighter and typically less expensive versions)
  • Barbera
  • Lambrusco (Most often a sparkling red wine, often made with a touch of sweetness)

Here are some of our favorite reds to chill:

Techniques for Chilling Red Wines

Whether it is efficiency or expediency one is after, there are countless ways to chill down bottles of wine. The most highly recommended techniques include placing the wine in the fridge (not the freezer as the abrupt temperature change could damage the wine) for fifteen minutes, or submerging the bottle in a salted ice bath for ten minutes or less (spinning the bottle in the bath helps speed up chilling).

Other interesting approaches:

  • Temperature controlled wine fridges
  • Whisky stones
  • Ice cubes (According to Matthew DeBord in his September 1, 2015 article, “You’ve Been Drinking Red Wine Too Warm for Your Entire Life” on businessinsider.com, one ice cube added for only a minute or two shouldn’t dilute the wine enough to affect the flavor, but should drop the temperature sufficiently)
  • A sous vide bath set to a low temperature
  • Natural techniques:
    • Placing wines in a cool basement for long-term wine temperature control
    • Submerging the bottle in snow or a cold body of water (this works well during camping excursions)

Professional Insights on Chilling Red Wines with SF Sommelier Megan Henderson

In an interview conducted with Megan Henderson, Wine Director and Sommelier at Gioia in San Francisco, she talked the concept of chilling red wines as it relates to wine professionals both personally and professionally.

Q: Do you chill reds at home and/or at work? If so, which types of reds?

A: I do chill red wines at home and at work! I tend to do it for wines that have light skin contact or are lighter in color. For example, we have a Schiava on my list right now that I think is perfect slightly chilled. It only sees seven days of skin contact and has this bright strawberry color. I think it opens up the flavor profile of the wine and gives it more versatility for the guest. By showing the dynamic quality of a wine, it opens up a customer to pairing it with something different or exploring a different varietal they normally wouldn’t.

Q: Do you think it is important to chill reds?

A: I don’t think it’s necessarily important, but for lighter reds it tends to add a certain brightness and freshness on the palate. Additionally, a wine that would normally be served at room temperature, once chilled can become quite refreshing on a warm day!

Q: How do you think it affects the wines?

A: Personally for my palate, chilling the wine adds a freshness and brightness to it. It makes it more thirst quenching and adds a different dynamic than if it were just at room temperature. Like I said though, it is perfect for lighter reds like a Beaujolais or a wine with light skin contact.

Oakland Sommelier Lisa Costa Talks About Chilling Reds

Lisa Costa, the Wine Director and Proprietor of The Punchdown in Oakland, sheds some light on the importance of chilling reds at her wine bar that showcases only ‘natural wines’.

Q: Do you chill reds at home and/or at work? If so, which types of reds?

A: We absolutely chill reds at The Punchdown, and not just in the summertime! Reds can be refreshing at any time of year. We find especially that light-bodied wines show extremely well at a lower temperature. Some of the wines that we consistently find ourselves wanting to chill are those made from thinner-skinned grapes with relatively high acidity and low alcohol. We are always reaching for the ice bucket with the usual suspects: certain Loire wines made from Pineau d’Aunis and Grolleau, some Gamays from Beaujolais, and the occasional Poulsard from the Jura–cool climate French reds. But we are always finding other chillable reds from farther-flung places, and some that are closer to home! Rafa Bernabe’s “Amistad” (amphora-fermented Rojal from Alicante) and Makaridze’s Aladasturi from the Republic of Georgia take on a glowing, ethereal energy when chilled. 

Just last night we did an event with Tony Coturri and as always, poured his berry-fresh nouveau-style “Young Carignan” cold. Also, I should clarify, at the Punchdown, reds that are not “chilled” still come straight from our cellar, which we keep at 55 degrees. The chilled reds go in the same fridge as our orange wines (tannic whites) at 45. Whites and rosés are kept in another fridge at 35-40. The wines that we carry are all made naturally without any of the usual additions and little to no sulfur, so cool temps are especially important to the integrity and stability of the wines.  

Q: Do you think it is important to chill reds?

A: To me, it is essential to show a wine at its full potential, and temperature is a big factor. If the winemaker intends the wine to be drunk cold, we will always respect that. If a wine drinks like a heavy rosé, we treat it as such. For me, drinking these wines without a chill would feel as wrong as drinking warm beer.

Q: How do you think it affects the wines?

A: The chill does several things to affect the perception of two major components of the wine: acid and tannin. First of all, acidity is moderated by the chill. Higher acid reds that may be perceived as sour at room temperature become more palatable, nervy, and refreshing when served cold. On the other hand, tannins are more pronounced at lower temperatures, thus we tend to avoid chilling more heavily extracted reds. 

Experimenting with Serving Temperatures

While it’s not imperative to chill every bottle of red wine you own, it takes very little effort to bring a bottle’s temperature down a few degrees and it can make a big difference for certain types of reds. Try this technique for red wines that you don’t typically enjoy. It’s possible that you’ve never had them at the correct temperature! Serving your wine at the ideal temperature gives you a more accurate view of its strengths and faults, allowing you to appreciate your wine more, and make better-informed decisions about your collection.

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