When you cook dinner at home, you probably make sure you’re going to eat when the food is at its optimum temperature. You expect restaurants to ensure that entrees for your table are ready at the same time so that everything is served hot. Shouldn’t your wine get the same attention?
Let’s say you’re going to enjoy a California Cabernet Sauvignon. Serve at room temperature, right? Many of you might have heard that for centuries, European homes were generally cooler than today’s climate-controlled homes; at least that was the case with the cellars where wine was stored. Thus the notion of serving wine at room temperature (i.e., straight from the rack in the home or from the cellar) has become a little convoluted today. That Cabernet you have stored in your home is not meant to be chilled before serving, but it is also not meant to be stored at 75 degrees (or warmer, as often occurs in homes where wines get stored in the kitchen). So even if you’re not storing it to celebrate your 20th anniversary years from now (I’ll talk about what I’m storing for that later), both your storage and service temperature will still be linked.
Now let’s consider a typical California Chardonnay. Unless you are planning to drink it tonight, there is really no need to keep it stored in the refrigerator, although I know a lot of people like having a Chardonnay or Riesling ready to serve just in case. There is nothing wrong with keeping a bottle in the refrigerator for a limited duration so it’s ready to go when company arrives, but in terms of storage, most wines (red and white) rest well at the same temperature – somewhere between 50 and 60 degrees (but 50%-70% humidity is key for long-term storage, so your refrigerator is too dry). Just remember to avoid serving that Chardonnay straight from the refrigerator. Why is that? I recommend you perform a test, which will include drinking wine – so you should enjoy this.
Place your favorite Chardonnay in the refrigerator and get it nice and cold – probably 36 or 37 degrees by the time it reaches the ambient temp. Now pull it out, open, and pour a couple of ounces into a glass. After a swirl and sniff, take a sip and note the flavors as the wine rolls around in your mouth. Do a reverse-whistle to let some air funnel in over top of the wine. Swallow, and follow the finish. How do the smells and flavors mix? Do the sugars (sweet) balance the acids (sour)?
You should have enough wine left in the glass for another healthy taste. Now, cup the glass in your hands to warm it up. You can swirl the wine as you do this, which will continue releasing aromas and open up the wine. With only an ounce or two in the glass, it should not take more than a few minutes to get the wine warmed to around 45 or 50 degrees. Once you have done this, take another sniff and a sip. Note the differences from your first taste. It will likely taste like you opened a different bottle of wine. The flavors should be more striking. If it’s a creamy Chardonnay, the texture is probably more apparent.
The lesson is that when served at the right temperature, you will have the opportunity to enjoy your wine as the winemaker intended. I once performed a variation of the experiment above with a 37 degree California sparkling wine and a 37 degree can of Coke. At that temperature, the differences in taste were almost imperceptible. So with your whites, store them with all of your other wine, just bring the temperature down to around 45 or so before serving (by placing in the refrigerator for no more than an hour). Storing them long-term in the refrigerator not only risks drying out the cork, but can also expose the wine to food aromas that you would not want present in your wine.
Reds are a little easier, as I find that serving at around 65 to 70 degrees allows for picking up all the right smells and tastes. When served warmer, you will be saddled with an overwhelming sense of the alcohol, which will mask most everything else. If you are currently storing your wine at a cooler temperature, you’re are all set to serve. Sometimes, that just means moving your collection to a dark, cool closet or under the stairs. While it is not the ideal 55 degrees at which highly-valued wines are cellared for years or decades, it is a step in the right direction. What about the decorative bottle rack you have on your wall that you don’t want to leave bare? You can place empty bottles in it, maybe from special occassions - if you really want to go for show, hop on eBay or other internet sites where you can find empties of some of the most sought-after wines on the market. Imagine telling that overly-pretentious oenophile friend-of-a-friend who always crashes your parties that you popped open that 1997 Screaming Eagle on your rack last week to watch the Dolphins game.
As a final note, and to zero in on what led me to write about this, watch out for restaurants that serve wine at all the wrong temps. I ordered a glass of 2006 Hess Tri-County Cabernet at a chain restaurant not known for wine service. The glass was filled to within a half-inch of the rim – I can get over this, although it prevents me from getting a good swirl. But even worse, its temperature was surely approaching 80 degrees! This was quite a shame, because it is likely a good value, but its components were all discombobulated at that temp. I’ll have to try again at home.