The Wine Exchange
Allen R. Balik
Exploring the Iberian Peninsula parte uno
With the official start of summer just around the corner, it’s time to dust of the grill and start thinking about some of the more delicate, aromatic and vibrant wines that may need a bit of a chill to show their best on these warmer days. We can now take a break from the bolder more complex menus of the cooler months as we gravitate to lighter cuisine, al fresco dining and a broad range of delightful wines to match.
The question I always seem to hear at this time of year is, “How cold should the wine be?” When people talk about serving temperature the common thought is, “Whites should be served chilled and reds at room temperature.”
While this old adage may make some sense on the surface, I have to ask what exactly is meant by “chilled” and “room temperature?” Chilled can refer to a range of temperatures from cool to frosty and room temperature has no real meaning given the wide range of temperatures we are now accustomed to with modern day heating and air conditioning. Maybe it meant something for those cold stone castles of old but not today’s homes.
Warm summer days and evenings call for lighter cuisine that showcases grilled meats, fish, fowl and veggies, along with fruits, soft cheeses and a variety of salads. Perfect pairings for a broad range of enticing whites, exhilarating dry rosés, sumptuous sparklers and many of those delectable lighter reds that did not quite fit with heavier winter fare.
This isn’t to say that you have to shelve your richer Chardonnays and bolder Cabernets. But only that the focus for summer tends toward the lighter and brighter end of the vinous spectrum with wines often showing better with varying degrees of chill.
On a warm evening a few weeks ago, we decided to launch the season with grilled marinated pork chops and corn on the cob. While standing over the grill I enjoyed a lightly chilled 2020 Zeitgeist Trousseau Gris Fanucchi Wood Road RRV, and with dinner we savored a 2018 Larry Hyde Pinot Noir Estate from Carneros at cellar temperature.
The Zeitgeist Trousseau Gris was a delightful treat that continued to evolve with rich notes of white peach bolstered by a grapefruit/citrus backbone of bright acidity and complementary textural components. It made me think of an old W. C. Fields quote, “I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.”
The Hyde Pinot was an enticing pairing to the grilled chop with a blend of red and black cherries and an evocative richness on the palate and finish. It, too, continued to evolve in the glass throughout the meal. Both wines showed their best with just a light chill.
A common mistake in U.S. wine service is whites are often served too cold and reds too warm. This is especially true in restaurants but can also be the case while entertaining at home. It’s generally agreed in the trade and by many consumers that optimal serving temperature is perhaps the most commonly overlooked factor in the enjoyment of wine, depending greatly on its style and your personal preferences.
Let’s take a quick look at what all this means and examine some easy-to-follow chilling tricks.
I prefer not to qualify chilling by specific temperature ranges as I’m sure you’re not going to slip a thermometer in the bottle before pouring, but temperature greatly affects the bouquet, flavor and mouthfeel of all wines. Cold temperatures tend to over accent the acidity and dull some of the nuances on the nose and delicate flavors on the palate. Warm temps tend to diminish the perception of acidity and volatilize alcohol altering the nose and heating the palate, while making the tannins more abrasive and numbing the fruit.
With this in mind, I tend to appreciate my lighter whites, dry rosés, sparklers and sweeter dessert wines with a good chill but not too cold. This highlights the bright acidity and aromatics while not muting the palate impression. To better appreciate the character of fuller bodied whites such as Chardonnay or their white Burgundy counterparts, I tend to enjoy them around cellar temperature (about 55 degrees) or with just a very light chill.
A bit of a chill for the lighter bodied reds such as Beaujolais and Dolcetto is definitely in order and stays true to their indigenous roots. The same may be true for a lighter styled Pinot Noirs, Sangioveses or Carignans if it’s an especially warm evening and the main course is also on the lighter side.
If your white in a restaurant is at a good temperature, leave the open bottle on the table to avoid murdering it with more time in the ice bucket. If it’s too cold, try cupping the glass in your hands for a minute or two. Or if your red is too warm, ask for an ice bucket and leave the bottle there for a few minutes. If the server looks at you like you’re crazy, just smile!
The easiest and best way to chill your whites, rosés and sparklers is to immerse the bottle in a bucket with about half ice (crushed is best but not necessary) and half water for about 20 minutes or so. This is quicker and far better than a bucket of ice cubes alone as you often see in a restaurant.
In the absence of a bucket and ice, you can stick the bottle in the fridge for a half hour but the freezer is not recommended unless you wrap the bottle in a wet cloth and only leave it for a few minutes. Near frozen wine is not good under any circumstances and excessive cold over an extended time can cause irreparable damage to the aroma and flavor profiles. Never use the freezer for sparkling wine – the ice/water bucket is best and eliminates any unwanted surprises.
There are also gel-filled cooling jackets on the market that you can store in the freezer between uses, but they are far better for maintaining the chill (while traveling to a friend’s house or on a picnic) than initiating it. While an ice cube is OK with some folks, I do not recommend it as the melting ice can dilute the wine especially if left in the glass too long. A last resort for sure!
An alternative to ice cubes as a quick chill for a glass of wine is frozen grapes. A frozen grape or two dropped in the glass has the same instant chilling power as the ice cube but does not alter the character or appeal of the wine. Give it a try.
Summer is my favorite season offering a chance to experiment with a great diversity of food and wine that enhances the many seasonal activities we always enjoy. It’s definitely “a time to chill” but when thinking about the more delicate whites and others, be sure to err on the side of caution.
Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an e-mail to me at email@example.com.
Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 40 years.