The sommelier’s eyebrows arched like circumflex accents as he spat the words back at me, Gallic steam hissing from his ears. “Vous voulez un seau à glace?” he demanded incredulously, as neighbouring tables turned to stare. Why the Richter scale reaction? Search me. All I’d asked for was an ice bucket to chill a red wine.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Sometimes wine waiters are a little more understanding, but most of them react as if I’ve insulted them. What made this confrontation even more significant is that took place in Bordeaux, arguably the most famous wine city in the world, during the recent Institute of Masters of Wine Conference. Even here, a few hundred yards from the historic Quai des Chartrons, the wine I’d been offered to taste was almost lukewarm.
Pouring a red at the wrong temperature isn’t a major crime, but it’s invariably a waste of good booze. Reds don’t like extremes of heat any more than we do, and if they get too warm they taste stewed, flat and alcoholic. I don’t want to sound too fussy about this. I mean, I’ve got a mate who carries a special infrared thermometer around with him to check the temperature of the wine in his glass. But if you care about what you’re drinking it’s reasonable to expect it to be served in decent condition.
It is a far from universally acknowledged truth that most red wines are served too warm, just as most whites are served too cold. The former problem is particularly acute in restaurants — even those with cellars and expensive wine fridges — but it applies to what people do at home, too. I blame the old adage about room temperature, coined before the invention of central heating yet largely inappropriate today.
One of my favourite wine cartoons shows two Eskimos coming out of an imaginary Baffin Island wine store. “If we serve this at room temperature,” says one to the other, “it won’t come out of the bottle.” Like them, we need to show some flexibility. If it’s freezing indoors, warm the bottle by a fire, radiator or stove. If the boiler is cranked up to 22C, put your red wine in the fridge for ten minutes to cool it down.
All reds taste better lightly chilled in my experience, but some taste better than others. A general rule is that the lighter and fruitier the wine, the more you should treat it like a white. The more tannic and chewy it is, on the other hand, the warmer you should serve it. You wouldn’t drink a cup of stewed PG tips when it’s cold, so take the same approach with a bottle of sturdy Barolo, claret or California Cabernet. Tannins from seeds, stalks, skins and oak barrels taste harder chilled.
How do you gauge the right temperature for your wine? It’s largely a matter of personal taste, so you need to experiment. Try the same bottle at 12C, 16C and 20C and see which you prefer. You might be surprised by the results. Tannic wines notwithstanding, most reds are fresher and more aromatic at 16C than at 20C. To my taste, anything above 18C is too warm, but feel free to disagree.
And what about 12C? It may sound extreme, but give it a go with lighter-bodied grapes such as pinot noir, gamay, cabernet franc, teroldego, dornfelder, mencia, dolcetto and unoaked tempranillo and grenache. Pour the wines cool then try them at ten minute intervals as they warm up. The sweet spot, at least to me, is generally around 14C for styles like these.
I’ve picked six fridge-friendly reds for you to try at home this week. The most important thing is to enjoy the wines rather than fuss too much about how you serve them. But might I suggest that you get hold of a thermometer before you do? That swanky infrared model my friend uses is available from www.wineware.co.uk at £31.95, but a basic, chemist-issued one will do, too. The temperature may be hot outside, but that doesn’t mean your red has to match it. Now is the time to chill.
2008 Chinon, Domaine du Colmbier (£5.99, 13%, Sainsbury’s)
Consistently one of my favourite reds at Sainsbury’s. this grassy, blackcurrant fruity, aromatic, drink-me Loire Valley cabernet franc is fresh, silky smooth and delightfully textured with no oak to interfere with its flavours.
2008 La Grille Pinot Noir, Sylvain Miniot (£5.99 each for two, 12%, Majestic)
Another stunning Loire red, this time made from the less widely planted pinot noir grape. This is elegant, refined and sweetly perfumed with supple tannins and notes of strawberries, tomato leaf and fresh leather.
2007 El Cayado, Bierzo (£8.99, or £7.19 by the mixed case, 14%, Oddbins)
Even if you don’t believe the story about mencia being related to cabernet franc, brought to the north west of Spain by pilgrims, you can taste the similarity. A refreshing, appealingly poised red with the faintest kiss of oak.
2007 Friuli Merlot, Arrigo Bidoli (£9.99, 13%, Marks & Spencer)
The north-east of Italy isn’t the first place you’d go looking for top quality merlot, but this medium-bodied example is a stunner. Bright, unoaked and supple, with fine-grained tannins and notes of cut grass, graphite and blackcurrant.
2008 Saumur-Champigny, Domaine de la Croix de Chaintres (£9.99, down to £7.99 until 3rd August, 12.5%, Waitrose)
Saumur-Champigny used to be regarded as a wine bar quaffer in Paris (and not a lot else), but when it’s good it can be wonderful. Filliatreau’s cabernet franc is brisk, aromatic and unoaked, with crunchy acidity and a green pepper bite.
2008 Régnié, Domaine Rochette (£11.50, 13%, Lea & Sandeman, 0207 244 0522)
The 2008 Beaujolais vintage wasn’t as exciting as 2009 (not many harvests are) but this delicious gamay, sourced from one of the ten top “crus”, is soft and alluring, with sweet red cherry and raspberry fruit and tangy acidity.
Originally published in The Times