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Keep Your Cool: How to Serve Every Wine at the Temperature It Deserves

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26 November 2020. Words by Nick Connellan.

There are some guidelines worth following, but when it comes to wine’s serving temperature, there’s certainly the aspect of personal preference. This guide, compiled with the help of some of Australia’s top sommeliers and Liebherr wine cabinets, will get you started.

“In general, wine’s still a very intimidating topic. If you tell someone to serve a wine at a specific temperature, it adds to that intimidation,” says Gabrielle Poy, buyer at Melbourne’s Prince Wine Store.

She’s right: wine is complicated enough, and for those still learning to separate their Burgundies from their Barolos, extra variables aren’t always welcome. But everyone already has a rough idea about temperatures – white: fridge; red: cupboard. The model just needs some finessing.

Basics

Wine is a balancing act between (among other things) sweetness, tannic astringency, acidity and alcohol. Temperature can dampen or intensify each of these elements, adjusting the balance. Cold wine tastes less sweet and less alcoholic, bringing acids and tannins to the fore. Warm wine tastes sweeter, more aromatic and more alcoholic, subduing acids and tannins.

You should absolutely be playing with this slider, says Travis Howe, sommelier at Melbourne’s Carlton Wine Room, winner of the 2020 Wineslinger Award. He suggests a simple experiment. Pour two glasses of your favourite full-bodied red, such as a shiraz or cabernet sauvignon, and drop an ice block in one. Drink them simultaneously and taste how different the same wine can be.

From there, it’s a matter of learning how early to pull your whites and sparklings from the fridge, and how soon to put your reds in for a brief chill. (As Louis Schofield from Hellbound suggests in the video interview, we tend to drink our whites too cold and our reds too warm.) A heads up: it’s always better to overshoot the mark and serve a wine slightly cooler than you intended – wine will always warm in the glass, and it’s easy to speed up the process.

Poy’s dad knew someone who microwaved a chilly bottle of wine while on a snow trip at Falls Creek. “I would not recommend this,” she says wryly. “I think the cork started popping out. I know people have a go and do their own thing, but there are better ways to warm up a wine. If you need to warm something up quickly, you can double decant it. Get a decanter or carafe, put the wine into it, then put it back into the bottle. Or just leave it in the carafe. That’ll warm it up quicker.”

Gabrielle Poy advises against warming up a bottle in the microwave. Photo by James Morgan.

How quick? “A degree every ten minutes,” according to Morgan Golledge, sommelier at Brisbane restaurant Yoko Dining. “I’ve actually done a few experiments in my time with how quickly wines do take on the weather,” she says.

Speaking of weather, location should also be taken into account. Even with air-conditioning, a wine drinker in balmy Brisbane will probably want to chill their wines a bit more than someone in Hobart. Along with personal preference, this is another reason why there are no strict rules for serving temperatures. You just need to experiment and see what works for you.

One more thing, given their higher level of detail, many top-quality wines tolerate being served slightly warmer than their cheaper counterparts. And indeed, those few extra degrees can be essential for revealing all the depth and nuance of a great bottle. Conversely, chilling a so-so wine is an easy way to make it taste better (or really, to ensure you can’t taste it with the same fidelity).

“If it’s a good-quality wine, regardless of colour, it’s got the ability to open,” Howe says, referring to the improvement that can happen after a wine is exposed to oxygen and warmth. “Let it open. But if it’s not a good quality-wine, the more they open, the more faults you’ll see.”

Howe even has a rule of thumb for this: “If it’s under 50 bucks, pull it out of the fridge and taste it. If it tastes really, really good, then you’re probably drinking it at its peak. If you like it cold, keep drinking it cold. If it’s over 50 bucks, I’d taste it first so you get the hint, the sensation, of tasting it first. Part of tasting wine at a higher level is watching that evolution, that change. But let it open up [before you drink the rest].”

Aromatic whites

Riesling, gewürztraminer, albariño and friends are best served between 7˚C and 11˚C, a range that emphasises freshness, crispness and acidity. At minimum, that’s 3˚C warmer than a regular fridge, and as much as 9˚C warmer.

Michela Lubbers, sommelier at Sydney restaurant Fred’s, advocates for pouring aromatic whites direct from the fridge and putting the bottle back after, “so you can appreciate the freshness”. Golledge does the same and believes the chill softens a wine’s acidity, letting it “express itself more openly”.

But down in Melbourne, Howe prefers to leave his aromatic whites on the table after they’ve left the fridge, and Poy likes to take them out 30 minutes early to pump up aromas and tame sharp acids. “The colder you serve a wine, the more you’re closing down the lovely top aromatics,” she says. “I had a tasting yesterday. One of the reps had 2020 South Australian riesling. But my teeth were absolutely tingling because I was so cold. And the acid was like an electric ride.” Nonetheless, she’s not opposed to the much-maligned practice of adding ice to wine. She’ll do it if she’s at a barbecue and her riesling’s not quite cool enough.

Curiously, Howe reckons the chill helps him appreciate aromatic compounds more, rather than less. “The tactile sensation of the acidity really allows you to focus in on the aromatics,” he says. “I’m not a scientist, but that’s something which always works for me.”

Full-bodied whites

Chardonnay, the world’s favourite white grape, is typically served a bit warmer than light-bodied and aromatic whites: 10˚C to 14˚C. But there’s some variation within this range. Taught, crisp expressions such as Chablis benefit from a bit more of a chill, while big, creamy chardonnays aged in oak should be served closer to 14˚C to reduce the presence of the tannins introduced by contact with the barrel.

At home, Golledge likes to serve Chablis direct from the fridge, while Poy gives it 45 minutes to warm up. With bigger Australian and Californian chardonnays, everyone agrees they should come out of the fridge ahead of time: 15 minutes (Lubbers), 20 minutes (Golledge) and 60 minutes (Howe).

“When the wine gets too warm, it announces the alcohol a little bit too much,” Lubbers says.

“I always like to have the first glass cool and watch it warm,” Howe says.

Skin-contact whites

“They can be made in so many different ways. It’s a really, really wide category and hard to categorise well,” Lubbers says, though generally she treats them similarly to a chardonnay, removing from the fridge 15 minutes early.

Golledge agrees. “I treat them the same as a fuller-bodied white. The only difference is, literally throwing them vigorously into a decanter to take away the edge of the phenolics from skin contact. It’s just a little bit more palatable and pleasant. And you get a lot more fruit as well.”

Fruit is the bigger seller for Poy, who says, “If you serve it too cold it just looks like structure over fruit. And for me, the main thing about a wine is its fruit. That’s always got to show through.”

Ultimately, though, chilling skin-contact wines is less prescriptive than other styles, because the amount of tannin in them can vary drastically, depending how much time they’ve spent on skins.

“There are a lot of skin-contact wines that are quite light on tannins; the skin contact’s almost just visual,” Howe says. “In that instance, drink it cool and enjoy that little hit of texture.” If it’s bitter and drying, you can come back later.

Sparkling wine

Vintage and grower Champagne and other high-end sparklings are should be treated like table wines, served at about 8˚C in a large-format champagne glass (or regular wine glass) to gradually open up. That means pulling them from the fridge about 30 minutes before serving. Everyone – Lubbers, Poy, Howe and Golledge – agrees that narrow flutes are a poor way to enjoy these sorts of sparklings.

Young, playful styles such as prosecco, pét-nat and non-vintage champagne are more so about simple refreshment than cerebral details. As such, they can be served very cold, about 5˚C, in flutes, and left in the fridge between pours. Freshness and acidity are the aim here.

Light- and medium-bodied reds

Varieties such as pinot noir, tempranillo, grenache and gamay are at their best between 12˚C and 16˚C. “When you have a wine that’s about freshness of the style, such as a light Beaujolais or Jura varietals, I’d say you want to have it a bit colder,” Lubbers says. Aged and more complex wines can be served closer to the top of that range.

“It really depends on the quality,” Golledge says. “If it’s a really easy-breezy fruity number, I’d treat it like a chardonnay, taking it out of the fridge and leaving it on the table. But I’d give it a bit more time out of the fridge – probably an hour at home.”

Poy goes the other way with the fridge: “If I’m going to a picnic with friends and I’m going to take a medium-bodied red, I’ll put it in the fridge for an hour, knowing that by the time we get to the picnic, it’s going to be warmer.” She describes inadequately cooled pinot as having “kind of a stew profile”, where the flavours are muddled together and lack clarity.

Full-bodied reds

“It terms of consumer preferences, unfortunately we haven’t quite met the time where people want to drink their heavier bodied reds at the ‘correct’ temperature,” Golledge says. “We’re not quite there – people are still drinking shiraz at room temperature, which is, in my opinion, quite overwhelming, as an understatement.”

A better level is 15˚C to 18˚C, at least 2˚C to 4˚C below a typical room. On hot Christmas days when the whole family is over and insists on drinking shiraz outdoors, Poy even recommends putting it in the fridge for 45 minutes prior to serving.

“Full-bodied reds typically come with more alcohol,” Howe says. “When you give them a little bit of chill, the alcohol doesn’t stand out as much. And it helps promote aromatics. So you’re taking something which might not scream elegance, and you give it the opportunity to be elegant, just by changing the serving temperature. It’s quite amazing.” At Carlton Wine Room, he serves his fuller-bodied reds at 15.5˚C.

Of course, it’s also possible to overdo this chill, which is something you’ll notice immediately. “You will taste the wine unbalanced, in a way,” Lubbers says. “Because it’s going to announce too much acidity and too much tannin.”

“If it’s got a lot of tannin it just becomes worse,” Howe says. “You end up feeling like you’re drinking cold black tea. I mean, sure, do it. But a tea bag doesn’t cost much, a bottle of Barolo sitting in the ice well does.”

This guide was produced with thanks to Liebherr wine cabinets. Liebherr are a partner of our winemaker awards and Wineslinger awards.