During my brief but expensive flirtation with hi-fi equipment, I was advised that the cheapest way to get better sound, the frst step to be taken, was to buy the finest quality cables. The obvious equivalent for wine is to improve the quality of the glasses it’s drunk out of (though improving the company it’s drunk in does even more!). That’s a controversial matter best left for another occasion, though I’ll note here my conviction that you don’t need to spend a fortune on what the Americans delightfully call “stemware”.
But there’s an even cheaper way that many people could improve the quality of their imbibing, and that’s by drinking the world’s greatest beverage at more or less the right temperature. Getting this simple matter right – or wrong – can profoundly influence how a wine offers itself. It’s a matter of particular importance, perhaps, as summer arrives. All year round, but especially in the hotter months, we tend, as a rule, to drink our reds much too warm and our whites and rosés rather too cold.
The principles apply to all wines, whatever their quality, but it’s worth noting that there are few wines so aromatic that they will smell of anything at all if really chilled. So if you’ve got something dodgy that you hope to get away with, serve it as cold as possible. Freeze their taste-buds! This applies to flabby wines too, with sweetness outbalancing the crisp acidity. Bung it in the freezer for an hour or two, then smile confidently and hopefully as you serve it.
In fact, many off-dry and sweetish wines benefit from chilling somewhat – refreshment values tend to increase with such stuff as it gets colder (think of the ghastliness of warm Coke). Sparkling wines are also fine served chilled (6-10°C): the bubbles perform better, and they are seldom aromatic so the diminution of smell is less significant. More serious, interesting and complex non-sparking white wines shouldn’t be as cold as this, however.
As for reds, it is well worth considering putting the bottle in the fridge or ice-bucket for a while before serving, rather than lazily invoking the old cliché of “room temperature” – where the relevant idea of a “room” is not of one in Durban in January. This is particularly true because most local red wines tend to be high in alcohol – and alcohol becomes very volatile over 20°C or so and will muck around with the wine’s balance. A soft, unwooded or lightly wooded red, like many rosés, will be more refreshing when close to chilliness.
More serious red wines will also be much more attractive coolish, at around 16-18°C – which usually means invoking the aid of the fridge for an hour or so before serving The tannins in most higher-end red wines (the mouth-puckering, hard, occasionally bitter element also discernible in strong tea, for example) will show much more when the wine is colder than this. Too warm, the same wine could be sharp, “hot” and thin; too cold, heavy and sluggish. A bit of a waste when you’ve paid so much.
For the next eight months or so, poured wine is likelier to warm up rather than cool down in the glass (and the defridged bottle), so take that intelligently into account too. Knock ’em cold, but – except in self-defence – don’t knock ’em dead.
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian 29 October-4 November 2010