Story by Charles Fredy
That’s a question you might be tempted to ask when served a glass of wine at “room temperature” in Hawai‘i. The concept of room temperature is easily misunderstood, and would be better explained as “cellar temperature.” In the Islands, a wine fresh from the cellar at 59 degrees will often feel too cold. The perception is psychological: when the bottle comes out of the cellar and hits humidity, condensation makes it look frosted and feel cold, even when the wine inside is fine.
At what temperature should wine be served? That depends. Letting a well-made red wine “come to temperature,” say 59 to 69 degrees, allows it to open up and enhances the flavor and textures. But increasing the temperature will also make any flaws in a wine more obvious, which is why an inferior wine will actually benefit from being served too cold.
I like to drink full-bodied whites when they are around 59 degrees, the same temperature I store all my soon-to-be-consumed reds. (Fifty degrees is perfect for storing wine for the long term.) I also give whites that are direct from my cellar a quick chill just prior to opening by placing them in the freezer for 10 to 20 minutes. You can drop a wine by 15 degrees very quickly, but I must also admit I have made my share of “ice wine” using this technique, and going that far will not yield the desired results!
Another way to chill white wine rapidly is to place it in a standard ice bucket or container with a fifty/fifty ratio of water to ice. I add a healthy amount of salt, which makes the water more efficient at drawing the heat from the wine.
Champagne can be enjoyed at various temperatures, but is best uncorked when it’s cold. Warmer temperatures create more pressure on the cork and can cause it to foam more. So open it chilled—43 degrees is ideal—then keep it on ice or allow it to warm to your preference.
Temperature, like wine selection, is a personal choice. But as a general rule, light wines can stand to be a bit cooler, heavy wines less so. Light whites tend to have bright, crisp, refreshing flavors and to be more balanced if kept properly chilled. (But don’t overdo it. Chilling a really good white too much is like putting the flavors in hibernation; you won’t taste them until the wine warms a bit.)
A red wine that comes from the cooler at 59 degrees will be enjoyable as it warms. If it hasn’t been stored properly (and reds often aren’t), it may be 65 or 70 degrees when you open it, and warm to 75 or more—at which temperature the tannins and alcohol start to overtake the wine’s balance and lessen the enjoyment. That’s also true of wines with a high alcohol content; they’re far more aggressive on the palate above 75 degrees—which is right around Hawai‘i room temperature.
In my experience, most people tend to drink whites too cold, reds too warm. That’s because of where the wines are stored. If you are serious about quality wine, consider investing in a professional wine cooler. I recently bought a 200-bottle cooler for around $1,000. You can find much less expensive models that hold 24 to 50 bottles. Serving temperature is so critical to the enjoyment of wine, it will be money well spent.
Recommended serving temperatures (Fahrenheit):
43–47° sweet white wine, dry sherry, dry Madeira
43–50° Champagne, sparkling wine
45–50° light white wine, rosé
50–55° heavy white, light red
54–61° tawny port, sweet sherry
55° medium-bodied red
59-64° full-bodied and aged red
64-68° sweet Madeira, vintage port