I came to the wine trade a shade over two and a half years ago, in December of 2015. I was exclusively a beer and spirits guy at that point, with a heavy emphasis on the former, and as such, I subscribed to a lot of the conventional wisdom that pervades the beer community about serving temperatures--the hoppier or crisper the beer, the colder it should be served--and even, I confess, applied those teachings to my then-rudimentary understanding of how and when to serve wine. White wine? Awesome, into the fridge it goes and let's chill that puppy down. Red? Pop that cork, kids, it's ready to go. I even remember, to my great shame, dressing down one of my sales reps because the wines she had brought me to taste--a lovely collection of primarily white wines from one of Burgundy's most talented young winemakers, Benjamin Leroux--were being served to me only a couple of degrees below room temperature. "What a shame," I remarked ruefully, "to ruin great wine like this by serving it warm."
Spoilers: I was being an idiot. Worse, I was being ignorant. The truth is, wine has a spectrum of appropriate serving temperatures nearly as broad as the variety of grapes from whence it derives--a powerful, spicy, honeyed Meursault should no more take an arctic chill than a bright, juicy Gamay Noir should be served at room temperature. Can is hardly the same as should here, of course; you can absolutely serve a Meursault straight out of the fridge, but the chill will strip away everything that makes that particular wine what it is, making it feel thin and overly acidic and robbing you of all the elegant layers of honey, almond, florality, and cream that you'd expect from such a powerful white wine. (And, incidentally, that you're paying a premium for--big whites ain't usually cheap.)
So why, then, did it take me two years of painful trial and error to figure out the simple truth that wine serving temps can and should be wildly diverse? Worse, why is it knowledge that only recently seems to be taking hold across wide swaths of the industry as a whole--I can plead stupidity, after all, but surely some of these restaurants and wine bars must have known better? To answer that, I'm going to take a potentially unpopular stance on the power of a handful of wine critics--particularly one critic who, despite a publicly-stated affinity for Californian and Bordelais wines, particularly ones made in a ripe, fleshy, muscular, and potently oaky style--has had his words taken as wine gospel for the better part of four decades now. Can you guess who I'm talking about? Little hint: his name loosely rhymes with Hobbit Marker.
Now, the blame for this unsubtle dichotomy in wine serving temperatures--whites and bubbly all cold, reds all at the high end of cellar temp or even room temp--can't be laid squarely at Rob Parker's feet. Certainly he didn't mean to be partially responsible for an oversimplification in our collective understanding of how and when wine should be served--but the indisputable fact remains that when a wine critic whose truest affections lie with only one particular style of red wine wields such outsized, international influence as Parker has for much of his critical career, that influence will grow beyond the sphere of his own personal oenological delights. And when your word is being taken as gospel by a generation of wine critics, consumers, and restaurateurs, and what you yourself love to drink are a category of wines that are brash, bold, and rich--in other words, wines that need to be consumed at near-room temp to fully enjoy their particular charms--well...you can see where this is going.
"Enough background!", though, I hear you all cry. "Give us some rules to shop by!" Well, that's easier said than done, friends--wine is, as I may have said once or twice or thrice already, a singularly diverse beverage, and beyond even that it's a living beverage. What tastes bold and juicy and ripe (ha) for throwing into the fridge when it's young can and probably will become less so as it ages and so-called secondary and tertiary flavors develop. Earth, tinderwood, leaves, scrubby undergrowth, dried herbs and flowers--these don't exactly sound as appealing, as refreshing, in a chilled red as berries, stone fruits, and freshly-squeezed juice. Conversely, a dense, layered, velvety white wine with flavors of cream, fresh hay, nuts, or ripe stone fruit is going to taste dulled, muted, and harsh when chilled down fully--but certain bigger-bodied whites, particularly ones that toy around with flavors of honeydew and cantaloupe, do enjoy a brisk chill to accentuate their brighter, higher-acid notes...you see why this is hard? In broad, tentative strokes, though, a few thoughts to help guide you in your pursuit of optimal serving temps:
1. Think about density as well as flavors. A lot of Moscato might be bright, floral, even a touch sweet--but it's still a light-bodied, delicate wine, and in its case putting a firm chill (~40 degrees) on it will help tame its sweetness, bringing out a clean, bright acidity that balances the wine and gives it structure. A Blanc de blancs AOC Champagne, meanwhile, might have plenty of bright, even tropical flavors--but it also has plenty of weight and presence from extended lees aging, and often a little bit (okay, a lot) of earthy breadiness from that same aging regimen--putting too much of a chill on this bottle will just dampen those qualities, muting Champagne's imposing gravitas and leaving you wondering why you just paid $70 for a bottle. (Try ~45 degrees for optimal balance of richness and vibrancy.)
2. Brighter fruit flavors often mean more chillable reds--usually! I can't stress the "usually" enough here--while it's true that, for example, many fun, fresh Gamay Noir wines can take a full chill, some growing areas in Gamay's ancestral home of Beaujolais produce powerful, structured, even imposing Gamay Noir--try putting a chill on a strict, earthy, deeply mineral bottle of Moulin-a-Vent and all you'll end up with is a mouthful of inky-feeling disappointment. It's helpful here to know a thing or two about the tannic structure of various grapes and wines here--broadly speaking, bolder, brighter fruitiness + lower tannic levels = more chillable.
3. The crisper the white, the lower the temp...usually. (Sorry.) Again, there's a few notable exceptions--a lot of white Burgundy is plenty mineral, but because many of those wines exhibit so many flavors besides simple minerality, and because so many of those flavors are by design often very subtle, white Burgundy often enjoys warmer-than-average serving temperatures. (Like a lot of Champagne, around 45 degrees is great.) Something to consider here is what you'll be serving your white wine with--if you're picking up a crisp, snappy bottle of Pinot Grigio or Vinho Verde branca to serve with a cheese board or shellfish, straight out of the fridge is the way to go. If you're pairing against something richer, or traditionally served warmer--clam chowder, say, or shrimp scampi--consider raising the serving temperature of your wine a few degrees to allow the nuances of the wine to shine, and to prevent the temperature of the wine from clashing with the temperature of the dish.
3. If you aren't sure, ask someone who might know! ...hi, that's us. While we don't claim to know the proper serving temp of every wine out there, we do our damnedest to know ours--and if we don't know it ourselves, as some of you have learned already, we usually build a tasting around it so we can all learn together. Come in, fire away with your questions, and as always, sip on.