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Chilling Reds

Wines Of Now
Words by James Vercoe.

Australian summers are hot, blistering even, and the warmest days are often spent perspiring over the Weber burning meat with close friends. A pair of tongs in one hand, something chilled and refreshing in the other. Fizz, white and, more recently, pink have held pride of place as the slakers of thirst on sunny summer afternoons. What about red? Why can’t we drink that cold? I grabbed a handful of reds, a bag of ice, and a couple of Melbourne’s top somms to find out.

Before we get too far down the track of what we drank and who said what, it is important to know that not every red wine can handle the hard chill. Dropping the temperature of red wine can have a few negative impacts on certain styles and varieties. It can turn what is a medium tannin wine at room temperature into an unbearable tannin-monster. It can make a wine that has had significant portion of its ageing in new oak taste something like licking a fence post, and it masks some of the more delicate floral characters and subtleties of a complex savoury wine and transforms it into an unappetising glass of chilled dirt.

Knowing this, we can rule out grapes like nebbiolo and malbec due to their high tannins. We can also rule out any powerful oak-driven wines. And it is probably best to steer clear of the special bottles in your cupboard that show all the subtlety and nuance of the sacred earth in which they were born.

Apart from the fact it is 35°C outside and you are bloody thirsty, there are some other reasons why chilled reds can be fantastic. The increased perception of acidity is one of the great things about cool reds. Generally speaking, the more prominent the acidity, the more refreshing the mouthfeel. The pronounced acidity can also give a more structured and linear feel to the wine. Chilling wine also brings some of the fruit characters to the fore, making the wine feel even more vibrant and bright.

Fruitier and lighter styles of reds, that are low on tannin, do well with a chill.
“If you are talking about chilling reds, then 4-5°C [regular fridge temperature] is way too cold. You probably want to be 8-9°C at the coldest. Though, it is very hard to moderate unless you are a wine bar with different fridges at different settings. In a restaurant, an ice bucket can be an easier answer where you can constantly feel the bottle and leave it out when necessary.”

I should mention that when I am talking about serving reds chilled, I don’t mean to refrigerate overnight, pour a glass and put the bottle straight back in the fridge. I have found that what works best for me is to whack a bottle in the fridge, or esky, on a hot day for around an hour, or two, and take it out for 10 minutes before you’re ready to drink it. Discuss the mysteries and vagaries of life with a friend, leaving the wine in the shade and see how it changes in character over the course of the bottle as it quietly un-chills.

I asked Andrea Infirmo (head sommelier at MoVida) and Pierre Marie-Caillaud (sommelier at Rosetta and current semi-finalist of Australian Sommelier of the Year) to join me for a chat and tasting of some young Australian wines that I thought could handle the chill.

Here’s how it went down…

Do your customers like chilled red wine?

AI: Customers do like it; you just need to make sure you specify on the by-the-glass list that it is served chilled.

PM-C: It depends on the venue; there is certainly a market for it in Australia. In some specialised wine bars, there is no need to call out that it is chilled, but in restaurants it is more appropriate to let them know.

What temperature should you serve chilled wine?

AI: Well… Australia has only recently started serving reds at the correct temperature (12-15°C) in wine venues, but if you are talking about chilling reds, then 4-5°C [regular fridge temperature] is way too cold. You probably want to be 8-9°C at the coldest. Though, it is very hard to moderate unless you are a wine bar with different fridges at different settings. In a restaurant, an ice bucket can be an easier answer where you can constantly feel the bottle and leave it out when necessary.

PM-C: You have to be careful, if you serve it too cold it can mask everything that is good about the wine. If you are serving chilled reds, you probably want them somewhere between 8-12°C.

What sort of red wines can you serve chilled?

AI: It must be something that prizes primary fruit over secondary characters. Not overly complex, something simple: young tempranillo, fruitier styles of grenache, also pinot noir, cinsault, gamay, and grignolino. You definitely want it to be a young wine, as the wine ages, it [chilling the wine] can make it feel tired.

PM-C: There are many styles that work. I particularly like gamay and nero d’avola. But it is more about the style rather than the variety. You want nuovo, young and bright styles that haven’t seen much oak and are low in tannin.

What sort of food is suited to chilled reds?

AI: Vietnamese duck salad with a bit of spice. I also really like vitello tonnato.

PM-C: So many options; barbecue, charcuterie and Thai food are some my favourites.

Shall we try the wines?

AI: of course.

PM-C: Finally!

2020 Babche Pinot Noir, Bellarine Peninsula

At only 10.5% abv the chilled wine danced nicely on a dark fruit and herbal edge with a light elegance and extremely refreshing mouthfeel. Both felt that as the wine slightly warmed the more gluggable it became.

AI: I am usually not a huge fan of chilling pinot; it can bring out some slightly greener characters, but in this wine, it brings out an interesting herbal note with lots of briar and rose thorn with an over-steeped rosehip tea feel.

PM-C: The chill really shows the dark plum and cherry flavours with crunchy tannin and an obvious freshness. There is a herbal tea-like finish and interesting hint of reduction that adds a flintiness to the wine.

2020 Meadowbank Gamay, Derwent Valley

The chill here was especially appetising. A very nouveau style that would be perfect as a picnic partner or dining alfresco at city wine bar.

PM-C: There is some obvious cab-mac [carbonic maceration] in this wine, and by chilling it down, it hides this a little and brings out a refreshing quality that I think really balances it out.

AI: Red cherry and bubblegum character with good concentration upfront. The tannins are pleasantly chewy, and it finishes with a refreshing blood orange-like acid line.

2020 Latta Vino ‘Benevolent’ Cabernet Franc, Ballarat

Agreed by both sommeliers as one of the wines of the tasting. Such complexity between bright and sour red fruits with a hard herbal and vegetal edge and a gunpowder whiff of reduction. The most impressive thing about this wine was the texture, tannin and finish.

AI: I love the fruit here. It is not often you get a taste so similar to fresh redcurrants. There is a vegetal character that you expect of cab franc, and the reductive quality of the wine enhances this. The tannins are just ripe, very crunchy and super polished.

PM-C: I love the texture. There is a slightly sour red-fruit character with a light and crunchy astringency. Sure, there is some reduction, but I think this adds a smoky complexity to the wine. The chill makes it so refreshing.

2018 Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown ‘Pret-a-Rouge’, Beechworth

The chill on this wine did show the oak a little, bringing some of the spice characters to the fore. It also made the wine appear slightly aged with notes of apple core and decaying flowers. Both agreed a really good wine, but certainly would recommend younger vintages for the ice bucket.

AI: There is a lovely Chinese five-spice character on the nose, and it is showing some oak spices too.
A really nice flowing texture, slightly high-toned with dusty tannins and a light sourness. It is very balanced with an amaro-come-fenugreek character on the finish.

PM-C: Definitely something oriental about it. Notes of alpine strawberries, macerated rhubarb, decaying flowers and a slight apple-seed astringency from the oak.

2019 Mallaluka Syrah, Murrumbateman

The syrah took the chill like a duck to water. There was an exceptional balance of black fruit, purple petals, and green herbs. The texture, while at first sip it could seem a touch glyceric, was quickly wound in and breezed through the palate with ease and confidence. We found that the sweet spot in terms temperature for this wine was after about 20-25 minutes post fridge extraction (probably somewhere between 9 and 11 degrees). Both agreed that that all wines looked great with a chill, but the Mallaluka was the king of cool. Pass the duck rillettes please…

PM-C: The blackberry note is almost confectionary but is kept in line by the herbal characters and refreshing acidity. It is dark fruited with a leather-strap savouriness and a lovely stem character that balances the wine. The texture is impressive and the finish fantastic.

AI: A chewy blackberry character with a green edge keeping it in check. It is full of violet flowers and a Provencal herbal edge of purple sage, lavender and thyme. The subtle tannins are perfect at this temperature, and there is a licorice root and slightly lignified feel on the finish.

So, next time you are sweaty, piquey and parched, you can have confidence in grabbing a bottle of red to quench your thirst.

Interested in more insights on the ideal serving temperature for various wines? See our video with Hellbound Wine Bar's Louis Schofield.