Many years ago I did not drink much wine. I drank a lot of good beer – gallons of Grant’s Ale. Wine just did not interest me. Looking back I am pretty sure that’s because I wasn’t drinking very good wines (Thunderbird at Lake Padden! Need I say more?) and some very sweet, syrupy wines at my parents’ house.
I also remember going to a wedding reception at a very swanky bar at the top of a hotel in Bellingham where I was served slightly warm white wine in a plastic cup that was incredibly tart and sour. It was a bad wine that could only be enjoyed, if at all, ice cold.
Now I drink wine all the time, and I enjoy it immensely.
One important variable to remember when serving wines is to serve them at the right temperature. I’ve found that most reds are best when served at around 55° to 65° F. Many people prefer to serve white wines at refrigerator temperature – usually around 40°F. I have found that my favorite white wines taste best when they warm up to around 50° to 60°F.
The last two bottles of white wine I’ve drank at home; 2007 Pinon Vouvray Silex and 2007 Waldschütz Gruner Vetliner Stangl, just got better and better as the wine warmed up. Why is that?
This article from Food & Wine by Pete Wells asks The Question:
“Why do we drink white wine cold?”
“That’s a good question,” Dan [Australian-wine importer and a contributing editor to F&W] said. “I don’t know.”
“Really?” I said. This seemed like such a basic query that I couldn’t believe somebody who made his living in wine wasn’t able to answer. I couldn’t have been more pleased if he’d handed me a hundred-dollar bill. At last I had achieved a kind of parity with someone who knows a lot about wine. It wasn’t that I knew something he didn’t know—that would be asking too much. No, it was enough that I didn’t know something he didn’t know either. From that moment on, The Question became a kind of protective device, something I could whip out when confronted by a wine expert the way hikers carry walking sticks for chance meetings with rattlesnakes.
Whenever I bump my head on the ceiling of my culinary knowledge, I turn to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, which lays out the scientific basis for just about everything edible. This is what McGee has to say on The Question: “The colder a wine, the less tart, sweet and aromatic it seems.” I read that sentence a second time, and then a third. The flavor of white wine comes primarily from just these three elements: acid and sugar, which you taste on your tongue, and aromatics, which have to evaporate before your nose can detect them. When you buy a bottle of wine, you’re paying for flavor (and alcohol, of course). If chilling masks the main flavor-producing elements, then every time you chill white wine, you’re throwing money away. Suddenly, I had visions of starting a consulting business that was sure to make me absurdly rich. For a modest fee I would pay a visit to your house and improve your white wine by taking it out of the refrigerator.
While I wouldn’t rule that out, it’s more likely that many Americans first encountered warm white wine the way I did—at parties, in plastic cups filled with the kind of Chardonnay that moves across the country in tanker trucks. This wine is a menace at any temperature; after sitting in a plastic cup for 10 minutes, it deserves to be thrown in jail. I suspect that this is why, when I ask many people The Question, they look at me like I ought to be kept away from sharp objects before saying, incredulously, “Have you ever tasted warm white wine?”
Anyone bearing the scars of an early bad-wine trauma is going to make it tough for sommeliers to pour wines at the temperatures the sommeliers themselves prefer.
Clark Smith, who teaches winemaking in Napa Valley and makes WineSmith and CheapSkate wines, is rarely at a loss for words. But when I asked him The Question, he threw up his hands and reeled back, like an old gunslinger who’d just taken the bullet with his name on it. It was most gratifying. Then he said, “Well, let’s think of what we use white wine for. We use it to refresh, first of all.” Terry Theise, who imports German and Austrian wines, gave me a similar answer: “It’s partly the function to which we put white wine. In particular crisp white wine is a water substitute, if you will, a thirst quencher.”
This explanation would have satisfied me back before I’d felt the power of The Question. But now I was ready to take on even the meanest, baddest wine expert. Before long, whenever one of them gave me the Refreshing Response, I had a comeback: Do we drink whites cool because they’re meant to be refreshing, or are they refreshing because we drink them cool?
I’d have to say a little of both is the correct answer. Drink the not-so-good ones cold and the very good ones just barely chilled.