Think about the last few times you ordered a glass or bottle of white wine in a restaurant. Did it show up ice cold? Odds are it did, because standard restaurant practice is to keep white wines in a fridge. As often as not, a server will bring a well-chilled bottle to the table and ask if you want an ice bucket. Just in case the wine accidentally reaches a drinkable temperature. This is thought to be a hallmark of fine wine service.
Consider what happens to a wine when it is chilled down to refrigerator or ice bucket temperature. The aromatics – a strong point for many white wines – all but vanish. The fruit flavors close up – shrinkage! The acids pop out aggressively, because everything else has been squashed. And should that wine have a flaw, such as brett or TCA, it will either be undetectable or hidden to such a degree as to seem unimportant.
From a restaurant point of view, this is all good, because it heads off many possible problems. But from where I sit, it takes away much of the pleasure that I’m paying a premium for. I’ll grant you that serving white wines at a proper drinking temperature is a challenge. Room temperature is too warm, but the easy alternatives – fridge or ice bucket – are too cold. And quite honestly, most people are so accustomed to drinking their whites really cold that they may not notice or care about what they are missing.
Recently, while vacationing in upstate New York, I was dining with a friend at a restaurant in a nearby town. The place was packed, comfortably funky, and obviously the owner/chef paid a lot of attention to detail. The menu was creative without being fussy, the bar was stocked with many dozens of fine bourbons, whiskeys and liquors. The wine list was extensive, thoughtful and well-priced.
I ordered a glass of French rosé, and it came from a freshly-opened bottle. The color was good and though predictably ice cold, I cupped the bowl in two hands begin warming it up. I took a sniff. Nothing. Like smelling an ice cube. So I took a sip.
A warning bell began ringing somewhere in the depths of my brain. Was something just a little off? Hard to tell. But the flavors tailed off suspiciously quickly. There was little if any fruit. The wine ended on a bitter note, nothing more.
I let the glass rest awhile, continuing to warm it with my hands. The warmer it got, the more I became certain that the wine was corked. TCA. Not horribly corked, but just enough to shut down the finish and attenuate the fruit.
So I sent it back. The waiter took it back to the bartender. They sniffed it and shot me puzzled looks. I suggested that they hold on to the poured glass, let it warm and check it again. They were kind enough to open up a second bottle and pour me a new glass. Though still too cold it was clearly better, with much more fruit, a better balance and a longer finish with no bitterness.
How many customers would even have noticed the problem? And does it really matter? It does if it becomes a sort of standard, to such a degree that worse wines with worse problems somehow pass muster simply because they’re cold.
When I review white wines at home I generally start by chilling them down to cellar temperature – about 55 degrees. Twenty minutes in the fridge will do that or get yourself one of those chillable sleeves you keep in the freezer and wrap around the bottle. I start off with the wine chilled but not frozen, and let it open up naturally as it warms. I return to it over a period of hours, and by the time it’s reached room temperature it has revealed either hidden assets or deficiencies.
There isn’t much you can do about white wine service in restaurants, but here are some general guidelines for handling white wines at home.
Sparkling wines are the best at handling a deep chill. They are supposed to be high in acid, so building that up doesn’t really hurt them. The aromatics will suffer, but if you pull the bottle out of the ice bucket after the first pour and let it slowly warm, the aromas will emerge. Remember when all sparkling wines were served in flutes? Lovely for presentation, not so good for aromatics. Which is why the trend to serve bubbly in standard white wine stems has taken hold. They smell better in bigger glasses.
High acid white wines from cool climate regions are also naturally high in acid and will be best when served around cellar temperature. If you let them warm too much they can turn flabby. But note that cellar temperature is not refrigerator temperature – it’s about ten degrees warmer.
Rich, full-bodied white wines such as this outstanding Fields Family 2019 Grenache Blanc from Lodi should taste great right out of the cellar and hold well for the next ten degrees or so. You should find their aromas immediately appealing, the balance spot on, the fruit generous and fleshy. If the wine was aged in new oak the right temperature should help to keep it integrated across the palate.
When I chilled this down to about 45 degrees as an experiment the effect was to sharpen it up, punch up the juicy acids and cut back the breadth and aromatics. You lose much more than you gain. So the best strategy would be start it just lightly chilled and let it warm in the glass.
Try experimenting with your own white wine favorites to find the right temperature for each. There is no one perfect temperature, nor will they all be best at the same temperature. But by tracking them as they evolve from just a little too cold to just a bit too warm, you will find the perfect sweet spot.