When wine is too cold, you can hardly taste it. When it's too warm, it tastes flabby and diffuse. But most wine, whether it's consumed at home or in restaurants, is served at the wrong temperature.
Back in the day, two benchmarks controlled wine service: The temperature of the wine cellar (about 55ºF) and room temperature (which, in a European castle, would be in the low 60s). You served your whites at cellar temperature, or maybe chilled in an ice bucket for a few minutes, and your reds at room temperature. Perfect.
But today, most people don't have castles or wine cellars. Consequently, they serve whites at refrigerator temperature (in the 40s). Room temperature in the average, centrally heated New York apartment or restaurant is likely to be in the mid- to high-70s (or even higher in the exposed wine storage area behind most restaurants' bars), so most red wines wind up being too warm and most whites are too cold.
To enjoy wine at the proper temperature, you need to act in a counterintuitive manner: Chill your reds and warm your whites. Unless you have a proper wine cellar, you should let your red wines spend about forty-five minutes in the refrigerator or ten minutes in an ice bucket (fill the bucket with a mix of ice and water for the quickest results). This will bring out the fruit and de-emphasize the tannins. Whites should come out of the fridge about half an hour before serving, or you should start them at room temperature and ice them for some twenty or so minutes to release their bouquets. If you follow these rules of thumb, you'll notice an immediate improvement in your wine enjoyment.
If you want to get more serious about temperature -- and I think it's well worth the trouble -- you can do a little experimenting. Chill a bottle of red wine overnight in the refrigerator. Get yourself a thermometer and pour and taste the wine as it rises through the various temperature levels. Touch the bottle to learn how the different temperatures feel on the back of your hand (just like feeling your kids' foreheads). You'll be an expert in a matter of hours, and you'll be able to serve every kind of wine at its ideal temperature.
- Full-bodied reds, such as Bordeaux, California Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Rhone Valley, Australian Shiraz, Burgundy, Oregon Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Italian Brunello and Barolo and port, show themselves best at 60ºF to 65ºF (about forty-five minutes in the fridge; bottle should be slightly cool to the touch). This is the warmest you should ever serve any wine. The truly great Burgundy whites, like Montrachet, drink more like reds than like whites and will also exhibit their flavors best at these temperatures.
- Light, fruity reds, like Italian Dolcetto and young Chianti, Valpolicella, young Rioja from Spain and Loire Valley reds like Chinon and Bourgueil do best at 50ºF to 60ºF (about one and a half hours in the fridge; bottle starting to feel cold).
- Likewise, the 50ºF to 60ºF range is ideal for substantial white wines, such as most white Burgundy, California and Australia Chardonnay and German Spatlese and Auslese, as well as high quality dessert wines like Sauternes and late-harvest Rieslings.
- Light, fruity whites, such as French whites from the Loire, Alsace and Bordeaux, lighter Australian whites, Oregon Pinot Gris and all Sauvignon Blancs are best at 45ºF to 50ºF (two hours in the fridge; bottle cold to the touch). This is also the proper range for fine vintage champagne and ice wine.
- Only the simplest wines should be ice cold (below 45ºF; three hours in the fridge). Basic Spanish and Portuguese whites (like Vinho Verde), the lesser-quality sweet wines, rosés and non-vintage sparkling wines.