There's a lot of advice out there when it comes to drinking wine. Serious collectors and aficionados are more than happy to tell you all about their special rules and regulations when it comes to storing and serving wine to protect its flavor and aroma.
But if the idea of asking a "wine expert" for help makes you nervous — or, let's face it, a little irritated at the snobbery that can come into play when it comes to talking about wine — don't worry. The basics of wine storing and serving are, well, pretty basic. Anyone can master them.
So here's what you need to know about temperature and wine, whether you're planning to keep it in your wine cellar for several months or pop it in an ice bucket and drink it up as you soon as you get home.
The Right Temperature for Wine Storage
First thing's first: If you plan to keep your wine unopened and save it for later, you really shouldn't be keeping it at room temperature. These days, room temperature is usually between 68 and 73 degrees, thanks to modern climate control technology. That's perfect for humans, but wine needs to be kept much cooler to keep it from spoiling. The proper temperature for storing wine is about 55 degree Fahrenheit, which is significantly cooler than you probably like for sitting around in your living room. In fact, this is about the temperature underground year-round, which is why wine was traditionally stored in caves and cellars before electricity was invented.
To keep your wine from spoiling, you'll need to store it somewhere cool. It you have an unheated basement that's nice and dark, you might be able to convert it into a traditional wine cellar. However, most modern houses have heated basements that will be too warm and dry for this project. Instead, it's best to keep wine in a refrigerator.
From a food safety standpoint, the colder your wine is kept, the longer it will last. But that doesn't mean that keeping your wine icy cold is best for its flavor when you're ready to drink it. Domestic refrigerators are generally kept at a chilly 38 degrees or so — significantly colder that the recommended cellar temperature. While keeping your wine this cold won't harm it directly, there are several drawbacks to storing wine in your kitchen fridge:
- If you like to eat, you'll only have space to store a few bottles in your kitchen fridge at a time — hardly ideal for collectors.
- It's best to store red wines — particularly rich varieties like Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot — on their sides to maximize the surface area that can be aerated as they age. The average kitchen fridge isn't built for this.
- The internal environment of a cold fridge is also quiet dry. Low relative humidity can cause corks to shrink and pull away from the bottle, breaking the seal and leading to spoilage.
- • Over-chilling wine means freezing your taste buds when you sip, so you won't get the full flavor experience if you simply pop the cork and pour the minute you pull it out of the fridge.
The Ideal Temperature for Wine Drinking
Keeping your wine cool to help preserve it is one thing, but the best temperature for serving wine is not actually ice cold. Wine is a very complex beast, full of delicate flavor and aroma compounds that all work together to create its unique flavor. Temperature plays a huge part in our experience of these compounds, in part because heat and cold influence the way you perceive flavors on your tongue.
Scientists have recently studied how temperature affects human taste buds, and it turns out that the sensors for sour, bitter and astringent tastes vary in intensity depending on temperature. Sour and astringent flavors come to the fore with warmer temperatures, while bitterness shines through in cold temperatures. Sweetness has the same intensity regardless of temperature, but it takes longer to register the flavor when it’s cold.
Consider what this means when you're drinking wine. If you serve a fruity white wine very cold, you'll tamp down some of its sweetness because it will take longer to register on your tongue through all the cold. For many people, less sweetness will taste more refreshing. Too much cold could bring out any underlying bitterness, though, which could throw off the whole balance of the wine.
Likewise, a Burgundy or California red may taste all wrong at the wrong temperature. Full-bodied ones taste great a little warmer because all the notes of light sourness and astringent tannins can shine through. You'll need the latent sweetness to balance those strong flavors, though, and serving your wine too cold could make it harder to taste the sugars, at least in their entirety.
The Correct Temperature for Every Variety of Wine
So how do you know the right serving temperature for your wine? In general, you can break your wine into three main categories when it comes to wine serving temperature:
- Red Wines: Drinking red wine at room temperature is standard advice, but keep in mind that "traditional" room temperature was determined before we had such reliable indoor heating systems. Red wines taste best served between 60 and 65 degrees, with light-bodied wines like Pinot Noir at cooler temperatures and full-bodied red wine at the warmer end of the range.
- White Wines: White wines, along with tinted rosés, are served lightly chilled, typically between 50 and 60 degrees. Dry white wines taste better slightly warmer, while something lighter like a Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc can be served colder.
- Sparkling Wines and Dessert Wines: Carbonated wines, regardless of color, taste best ice cold, usually around 35 to 40 degrees. Dessert wines should also be well chilled so their sweetness comes to the palate more slowly.
How can you serve different wines at different temperatures? The easiest way to make sure you're getting the most out of your wine is to store it at the temperature you wish to serve it. That's far more convenient than trying to remember to take over-chilled bottled out of the fridge a few hours before you want to pour it. A dedicated wine cooler fridge with precision temperature controls will make life much easier. If you love red and white wine equally, choose a model with dual-zone cooling so you can enjoy either one at the perfect temperature whenever you like.
But What About Summertime?
When the temperatures outdoors rise, it's only natural to want to cool off with an ice-cold drink. So do you drink wine cold? If you'd like to chill your wine more than usual in the summer, that's perfectly fine. In fact, starting out a bit colder when you're sitting outside is a good strategy, since the wine in your glass will stay cool longer. You may even enjoy comparing and contrasting the flavors as the drink warms over time.
Summer is a good time to experiment with wines are good for chilling, even if you normally prefer them at room temperature. For example, light-bodied reds with a lower alcohol content often chill quiet nicely. Côtes du Rhone or Cru Beaujolais are good choices, since they can be served at a chilly 55 degrees and still taste great. Rosés also stand up well to being iced, which is why you see so many of them pop up during the summer. Choose a dry version for total refreshment.
For a traditional take on summer refreshment, don't forget about the queen of all cold wine drinks: sangría. This punch is traditionally made with red wine and slices of fresh fruit, and there are plenty of recipes to try and lots of room for experimentation. Regardless of your mix, it's always served over ice, proving that even a heavier red wine tastes great cold if you get creative.
Finally, there's always room for personal taste. You have a unique collection of taste buds in your mouth, so what seems bitter to someone else at 45 degrees might be perfectly sweet and refreshing to you. If you want to drink cold wine, go ahead! And if you want really cold wine, consider making some wine ice cubes or wine slushies for an adult take on summer fun. You might just come up with a tasty new tradition for your annual barbecue.
The Bottom Line
Knowing how to store your wine at the right temperature for serving gives you a sound basis for enjoying your bottles. Once you know the "rules," though, feel free to experiment to see if your personal preferences match up with conventional wisdom. This will allow you to fine-tune the temperature controls on your wine fridge to get the optimal serving temperature for your personal tasting pleasure.