Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Yes, please, do chill those reds

I have one and only one book to thank for introducing me to the weird, almost heretical, concept that red wines should be drunk cool. This was the charming Fear of Wine: an Introductory Guide to the Grape, by Leslie Brenner. The author explained succinctly what I relay to customers who blanch at the idea of cool reds, because they, and we, have all heard that "red wines should be served room temperature" -- some people even say "warm" -- "shouldn't they."

No, not exactly. Room temperature, Brenner says, in a French chateau or a modest English parsonage before the era of central heating was distinctly not 72 degrees Fahrenheit. And how long has the era of wine endured, compared to the era of central heating? "Room temperature" is about 58 or 60 degrees F. If you live in a cold climate and have ever enjoyed the exciting experience of losing power during a long snowy weekend, you know that when your thermostat creeps down to 60, you are walking around your house wrapped in a blanket, feeling your nose and exclaiming, Gawd, it's cold in here. Our ancestors who endured even more exciting experiences, who didn't particularly need thermostats because they woke up on winter mornings with ice in their bedroom washstands as a routine thing, would laugh at us for being such wimps. Then there was dear Queen Victoria, who had thermostats but insisted that all of them in all her castle rooms should never read any higher than 60, because she liked cold.

We digress, but Her Majesty must have served perfect red wine. You want to get those reds down from 72 degrees or worse, not only to satisfy historical definitions of room temperature but because the wines taste better that way. Warmth makes the tannins, acids, and alcohol in red wines harsh and overbearing; by the same token, over-chilling, whether of reds or whites, smothers flavor and sweetness (think of biting into a refrigerated fresh peach: how dull).

I performed an experiment not too long ago, to teach myself what a red wine at 60 degrees should feel like in the mouth. I pulled out a bottle from the refrigerator, poured a glass, and kept my instant-read thermometer handy, while I went about the house and kitchen doing other things. It took quite a while for the thermometer to come slowly up to 60 from a reading of refrigerator-cold, which is usually about 42 degrees F or so. When I finally had my red at the proper temperature of a bygone age, I sampled it. It reminded me of the feel of a sip of milk from a glass that I might have left out and forgotten on a warm day, and that was still barely cool enough to drink. It was a sip that warmed instantly to body temperature even before I swallowed. What did the wine taste like? Busy concentrating on it as a liquid, I don't remember exactly. But I do remember, and from subsequent experience briefly chilling and drinking red wines I can testify, that it was not the mouthful of sandpaper and nails that a warm red wine can be.

So please, don't suffer choking down warm, tannic, "room temperature" reds, trusting that this is the way they should be. Especially not in summer, when the conventional wisdom is that whites are more refreshing and even look better in the glass, and poor delicious reds are (it seems to me) unfairly neglected. And especially don't suffer in this age of increasingly dense, high-alcohol, "fruit-bomb," ahem "New World" cabernets and merlots, which need that bit of chateau-chilling to give them a simple dose of Old World grace.

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