Proper wine storage and serving temperatures are perennial hot topics of discussion amongst wine consumers, primarily because we want to protect our wines and maximize the pleasure of consuming them. We know wine has been made, stored and served for thousands of years, and we quickly learned that temperature affects the flavor of wine and temperature control is critical to long term storage. The stereotypical image of a wine cellar is not accidental—cellars, spring houses, caves, cool water and simple holes in the ground are naturally cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter than the ambient air temperature, making them excellent places to store wine. Modern wine science has simply put a finer point on the issue, focusing on the mechanisms behind what makes temperature so important.
The flavors and aromas of wines change over time; the warmer the temperature, the faster they change. Therefore, the cooler a wine is kept, the slower it changes in flavor and aroma and the longer its character is conserved. This can be good or bad, depending on the wine. Some wines need to “age” to become more desirable to consume (such as heavy bodied red wines) and others should be consumed as quickly as possible, before they lose their desirable characteristics (such as Beaujolais Noveau wines every year). Does this mean it is not good to drink young red wines and old Beaujolais Noveaus? Absolutely not. If you like the flavor and aroma of the wine at its current age, help yourself! Just be aware that the flavor and aroma may eventually be (or may have been) better at a different time than today.
Our ability to detect wine flavors and aromas is significantly affected by the temperature of the wine. Wine flavors are very complicated; it is their interaction with our taste buds that determines what we taste. The warmer the wine when we taste it, the more sensitive our taste buds are to the flavors present. Since the compounds we detect as wine aromas must be volatilized into the air to be detected by our sense of smell, the warmer the wine, the more volatile compounds are released from the wine, and the more we smell. When wines are served at cooler temperatures, our sensitivity is diminished and fewer aromatic compounds are released from the wine, leading to less detectable aroma.
Serving temperature can be a powerful ally if used properly. Harsh or otherwise undesirable flavors or aromas are relatively easily detected in white wines due to their lighter body and less complicated chemistry than red wines. Serving white wines at cooler temperatures helps to “hide” any harsh characteristics present while amplifying their more desirable ones. In combination with the acids naturally present in wines, properly chilled white wines are commonly perceived to be crisp, fruity and refreshing. Red wines, with their more complex flavors and aromas, need to be served at warmer temperatures to allow the plethora of flavors and aromas to be detectable by our senses. Warmer serving temperatures also allow the aromatic compounds in the wines to more easily become airborne, making them smell stronger and richer. Chilled red wines smell and taste “bland”.
The recommended serving temperature for white wines is 50 – 55oF; red wines are recommended to be served at 65 - 70oF (cool “room” temperature). Since few people think (or are willing) to measure the temperature of the wine they are serving, rules of thumb come in handy for getting in the range of optimal serving temperatures. A white wine stored at room temperature may be placed in the refrigerator for three hours or an ice bucket (3/4 ice, ¼ water) for 20 minutes before serving and it will be close to the recommended serving temperature. Red wines stored at room temperature should be chilled no more than one hour in the refrigerator to achieve the recommended temperature. Wines stored in a wine refrigerator should require minimal temperature adjustment before serving. In fact, if a wine refrigerator is set to 55oF, white wines may be served directly from storage and red wines need only be allowed to temper 15 – 25 minutes.
The bottom line for storing and serving wines is keep them as cool as possible in storage and serve them at temperatures that accentuate their flavors and aromas. You and your senses are the ultimate judge for what temperature is correct, so experiment, learn, and enjoy!
Dr. Tony V. Johnston received his Ph.D. in Enology and Viticulture in 1995 and has taught wine appreciation and wine science ever since. He consults with grape growers and wine makers, has owned and operated his own winery, and loves to take people to wine producing regions of the world to learn more about wine. Dr. Johnston may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.