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With wine, right temperature makes all the difference

Updated: August 22, 2012 10:49AM

Temperature matters.

Think of a scoop of ice cream that is so cold and frozen you wish you had a knife and fork to cut it because bearing down on it with a spoon is hurting your wrist, not to mention making you grunt out loud. Worse, when you finally get a chunk into your mouth, you taste little more than frost. You notice the cold but barely detect the sweet cream and sugar that makes ice cream ice cream.

Lost on you is the exalted lusciousness of chocolate, or caramel, or any of the other inferior ice cream flavors available. It is only after that arctic lump begins to warm in your mouth that the rich flavors emerge. An iceberg of ice cream reaches peak flavor when it verges on being melty.

On the other end of the thermometer, a bubbling pot of fondue is no good, either. Warm cheese is good, hot cheese is bad — and not just because it will burn your tongue. It just does not taste as good as it would at the proper temperature.

The same goes for wine. When a red wine is too warm, not chilled at all, the alcohol can become more pronounced. You might feel like you are hovering over a glass of Cognac instead of a nice red Bordeaux. When reds are too cold, they sometimes taste metallic.

White wines that are too cold temporarily lose their beautiful aromas and subtle flavors, and when they are too warm, again, alcoholic vapors waft. Most of us serve our reds too warm and our whites too cold. Let’s pledge to get it right from now on because it is not that complicated.

In the most general sense, whites should be chilly and reds should be slightly chilled. Whites should almost never be cold, and reds should almost never be room temperature. If it were 100 years ago then sure, room temperature would be fine. But we live warmer now, thanks to insulation, central heating and our increasing collective demand for regulated comfort at all times.

Why not serve your wine at the right temperature? You could go all the way and rely on a thermometer, matching wine styles to their precise temperatures, or you could be simple about it and put your sparkling wine in the refrigerator for two hours, whites for one hour and reds for a half-hour. If you use an ice bath (equal parts ice and water in a bucket), chill your bubbly for 30 minutes, whites for 20, reds for 10.

Never use only ice, unless you somehow have no access to water. Ice alone takes forever, and only becomes effective when it starts to melt. So just add water to the ice from the start and save yourself the time. To speed up cooling even more, occasionally give the bottle a gentle spin. Grip it at the top and twist, as if you are removing a screw top. This way, all of the wine in the bottle will make contact with the cool glass.

I am often guilty of “overchill” because I would rather have the wine warm to the proper temperature in a glass than have to send the bottle back to an ice bath or fridge. Plus, you can sip an overchilled wine at different temperatures and see how the aromas and flavors change. That is nothing but fun, friends. If you are of the sort who likes to wrap your hand around a glass, this is your time to shine, as doing so will warm the wine. But when the wine reaches the right temp, remember to switch back to holding the stem.

The bottom line is, make sure your reds are not too warm, your whites are not too cold. If you use a thermometer, shoot for these general temperatures (but touch the glass and familiarize yourself with what certain temperatures feel like because you do not want to have to rely on a thermometer the rest of your life, do you?): Sparkling wine, 35-45 degrees; Champagne, 40-50; lighter whites (Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc), 40-50; fuller whites (Chardonnay, Riesling), 45-55; lighter reds (Pinot Noir, Beaujolais), 50-60; fuller reds (Syrah, Chianti Classico), 55-60; big reds (Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon), 60-65.

I’m sure there are many things that are just as enjoyable hot as they are cold, but pizza is the only thing I can think of right now. And come to think of it, even pizza has its limits. Too hot or too cold? I want nothing to do with that slice. Pay attention to wine temperatures and your enjoyment will rise, even, and sometimes especially, as the mercury falls.

Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail

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