Understanding Wine: The Effects of Temperature

It might seem like such a little thing, but temperature can really change the way things taste. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ordered a glass of Chinon where it tasted like a rotten pepper cottonball and thought “I tried this wine the other day and loved it. What’s the difference?”.

This is not rocket science. Don’t get overwhelmed. You don’t have to run around with a thermometer or store all your wine with one of these Danish watch-sleeves (cute though, Jakob Wagner):

menu-wine-thermometer-1_grandeIt’s not so much getting the degree down, but understanding that wine, like people, is alive and needs to hangout at a comfortable temperature in order to sustain itself and be the best it can be. This also includes the day(s) it remains open (I’m looking at you, bartenders). Just like beer, just like cocktails, wine will suck if it’s too warm. Better chilled than too hot; you’ll NEVER be able to salvage a wine that has overheated.

There are many things that affect the taste of wine. For our purposes we’re going to focus on all things temperature related. If it doesn’t taste good, don’t write it off like the last Avengers movie. Consider the following:

1) Ambient & Storage Temperatures 

How are you storing your wine before it’s opened? How about after Cork/Vacuum/Coravin/Other? Most restaurants have a cellar situation set up already, where bottles are kept relatively cool (under 63 degrees F) and even store their whites separately in a fridge. The part that’s often overlooked is once the bottles have been opened as glass pours. Oxygen plays a factor in rising temperatures, so make sure that if you have open bottles, they are kept in a low, cool place, preferably off the bar, where they don’t get exposed to heat. Do not store your glass pours next to the dishwasher or near a window with sun exposure.

The parameters for happy wine are 39-64 degrees Fahrenheit (4-18 degrees Celsius). Generally, the higher the sugar content, the colder the storage. Of course, there are many exceptions, but storing wine at 50 degrees Fahrenheit is agreeable for most.

Next, where are you? Outside, inside, AC, humid sponge box? Your body temperature and surrounding climate are often overlooked factors, but play a big part in what you order and how it tastes. Think about where the wine comes from, the climate and topography, the people, the food, and then check your location. If they match up, chances are you’re onto something good.

2) Stemware

It turns out that drinking out of a paper cup is a totally different experience than drinking out of Zalto mouth-blown crystal glassware. Those are extremes, but basically the goal is to drink out of something that interferes as little as possible with the sights, smells and tastes of the wine. The thinner the lip, the cleaner the substance (plastic bleeds into the liquid), and the shape can elevate or torture its contents. Easy Self Test: try the same wine out of 3 different types of glasses and see which one lets you taste the wine easiest.

3) Grapes Are Like People

They have personalities and come in all shapes and sizes. They have different needs, including the temperature they like to be served at. Remember, this isn’t only the wine’s temperature, it’s also the place you’re located (AC, outdoors, fall, etc). Here are 3 examples:

Champagne (the Obvious) – Warm bubbles are a slap in the face. They’re hard to swallow, taste sour and throw off everything refreshing, invigorating or otherwise pleasurable. No.

Poulsard, Pineau D’Aunis, Pelaverga, Freisa & other weird light red varietals (the Not So Obvious) – Turns out there’s a weird glitch in these lighter reds that makes them tastier slightly chilled. This is particularly true for lighter reds produced in a Biodynamic or otherwise Natural method. Who knew? Try it, and let them come to room temperature in your glass. The transformation is amazing.

Tannat, Syrah, Carignan, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon & other reds with earthy qualities (the Surprise) – Think of wines from areas of dry heat (South West France, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence, Portugal) and you’ll understand that these wines are best drank on the warmer end (63 degrees F). In fact, they’re even better outside on a dry, hot day believe it or not.

These temperature examples are a result of grapes, terroir (oh no, I said it), and production method. If a wine was produced in a Natural method, chances are it will sustain itself for several days after being opened, and even develop further. If it is a white grape, chances are it’s better served cold. If it comes from a hot, dry climate, it probably tastes best when you are drinking it in that kind of weather.

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