Samui Wining & Dining
A Matter of Degree

Serving wine at just the right temperature is of paramount importance.

A Matter of DegreeYuk! It can be the most expensive wine in the world. But if it’s not served at just the right temperature, you’ve wasted your money. Too warm or too cold – either way it’s a sin.


Temperature dramatically affects the taste and the nose of a wine. And, in my humble experience, most people unwittingly, but nevertheless disappointingly, serve wines either too warm or too cold. Wine is a complex combination of unstable compounds, alcohol being a primary element. If a wine is served too warm, the alcohol tends to evaporate quickly, unbalancing the wine, causing it to lose structure and body, along with a distortion of the aroma.


Serve a wine that’s too cold, and tastes and aromas are often withheld. And in the case of red wines, the tannins have insufficient time to breathe and soften, resulting in a more bitter taste. Put simply, nothing makes more difference to the pleasure of drinking a fabulous wine, than its temperature. Stone cold claret and lukewarm sparkling white wines are gastronomic abominations!


And there are several good reasons why this is the case. Our sense of smell (and hence the greater part of our taste) is only susceptible to vapours. Red wine, because of its exposure to grape skin, has a higher molecular weight and is consequently less volatile than white wine. The object of serving red wine at around 18 degrees centigrade (the term ‘room temperature’ is now an anachronism, because of wine globalization) is to allow its aromatic elements to vapourize. The heavier or more full-bodied a wine is, the higher the temperature needs to be. But a very light red wine, such as a French Beaujolais or Californian Zinfandel, can be treated almost like a white wine; its volatility is apparent even when cold. On the other hand, the more substantial red wine gems, like Italian Barolo, Aussie Cabernet Shiraz and classically fine red Bordeaux, need some warmth to release their highly desirable characteristics. Of course, one could argue that heating it would release the entire aroma, as happens with a fragrant cup of coffee. But as we all know, wines served even a little too warm will taste flabby and unfocused.


Interestingly, you may have noticed that in the classier French restaurants they tend to serve their red Burgundies cooler than their Bordeaux. This is because the grapes that are used are often of the more volatile variety. For example, Pinot Noir is definitely and defiantly one of the more ‘showy’ red wine grapes. And that’s also why young Burgundies are much more attractive than young Bordeaux. And, although I’m not a big fan, this is also the concept and peculiar draw behind the much over-hyped Beaujolais Nouveau.


When it comes to white wine, cold is necessary to provide a sense of balance to the richness of very sweet and floral wines, even if doing so masks some of their flavours. As a general rule, the sweeter a wine, the colder you should serve it. White wines, such as Muscats, Sauternes, Eiswine, Vinho Verde, sparkling wine and most Champagne, all need to be chilled down to 5 or 6 degrees centigrade. The more medium to dry wines, like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis, Riesling and Rosé, are best at around 8 or 9 degrees centigrade. As these lower temperatures can be quite critical, I find it best to pour the wine very cold and allow it to warm up in the glass. Domestic fridge temperature is just about right for medium white wines (kept in overnight) but the sweeter ones absolutely need ice buckets. And obviously, here in the tropics, where the balmy air will warm up a wine very quickly (when not in an air-conditioned environment), ice buckets and small measures into pre-chilled wine glasses are needed for just about every white wine. Ice buckets filled with ice and water work best and the bottles, especially the tall German style ones, should also be put in upside down for a while, to chill the first few sips sitting in the bottle’s slender neck.


Depending where you are, persuading a red wine to reach the right temperature can be trickier. In cold conditions, the kitchen is often the perfect place to leave a red wine to slowly warm. But beware, kitchens can often be hotter than you realize, even in winter, especially when you’re cooking. I’ve found the most practical way of warming a red wine in a hurry is to decant it first and then stand the decanter in warm water. And it does not harm to heat the decanter (within reason) first. For lowering the temperature, as those of us lucky enough to live here in the tropics know, cellaring our red wines in the bottom of the fridge and simply taking out the bottle 15 minutes prior to drinking, works perfectly. And handily, if you’re gasping after a hard day in the heat, half a glass of the chilled mood-changing red nectar will always warm up quickly when it’s cupped in your hand.


Now I realize that all this fussing about temperature may seem a little obsessive to the casual wine drinker. But I can’t stress enough how it really is worth taking the time and trouble over. In recent years, with the huge increase in the popularity and ubiquity of wine, pedantic old wine buffs, like me, probably care (and fret) more about this issue than any other. To us, it should never be forgotten that our cherished wine is unlike any other beverage – it’s a precious living and breathing entity. And like the people who drink it, wine functions best when it’s comfortable and contented.


Peter James

Wine Guru


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