On a hot summer’s evening, after a long hard day at work, there’s nothing I like more than to unwind with a cold glass of red.
That’s not a typo. Nor am I being wilfully perverse. A glass of lightly tannin-ed, sappy, brisk and berry-fruited gamay, from a bottle taken straight from the fridge and photogenically beaded with condensation, is as thirst quenching and enlivening as any glass of cold fizz or G&T.
It’s the very essence of a summer drink. But it’s one I come across only rarely when I’m out and about. Only in natural wine bars – as studiedly informal and iconoclastic in matters of serving etiquette as they are in decor and ambience – are red wines routinely served chilled.
In general, bars and pubs, and their customers want and expect their red wines served warm. Room temperature is the routine setting but it’s the room temperature of a modern, fully insulated, centrally heated house: a stuffy 20C+ that turns all red wines into a kind of soupy mush. Never mind that this remarkably resilient piece of serving advice comes from a time when the only people drinking wine in Britain were the upper classes , their draughty country house rooms rarely much warmer than 15C.
That temperature is more or less ideal for most reds, most of the time. It’s not so cold that the wine becomes aromatically muted. But it’s cold enough for the wine to keep its “definition” – a typically nebulous wine term that I can only really explain by analogy. Think of a warm can of Coke or, for that matter, white wine. There’s a lot more on the nose but on the palate it feels kind of unfocused, flat, lacking in sharpness. That’s how I feel about red wine that’s been served too warm.
Whenever I do tasting events, while nobody ever complains that their red wine is too warm, many people are still surprised, even affronted, if they’re served a red wine at the temperature they’d expect for a white. The reaction is instinctive, akin to the first time a northern European tries gazpacho or ajo blanco: can you take this back to the kitchen and warm it up, please?
I’m not saying that every red wine benefits from being served almost icy cold. It works best on low- or gentle-tannin, high-acid, crunchy-fruited styles. Examples include Beaujolais and other gamays; cabernet franc, particularly from the Loire; the pale, modern style of grenache/garnacha; and dolcetto. Richer, oakier, weightier styles of white, and sparkling wine, also show off more of their complexity when they’re not completely freezing to the touch (12°C or so). And a few ice cubes in a glass of the more robust, darker rosés is one of summer’s simple pleasures.
And if at any point I’m not quite sure what temperature to serve a wine, I always err on the side of too cold. It takes a few moments to warm up a glassful of wine with your hand; it takes a lot longer to chill a whole bottle.