Some of the first information that we learn about wine is that we serve whites chilled and reds at room temperature. Later we learn the reasons. Chilling brings up refreshing acid in white wine, which is a large part of its appeal, although it also lessens the flavor a bit. The reason that we serve red wines at room temperature is that the warmer temperature highlights the richer flavors and also reduces the effect of grainy tannins, making the wine smoother. But most of us enjoy breaking a rule now and again, and violating this one has various satisfactions and almost no risks, unlike driving over the speed limit or misrepresenting numbers on tax returns.
Many of us know that the finer a white wine the less it should be chilled and maybe not chilled at all. Spending big bucks for a beautiful white and diminishing its flavors by chilling it down makes little sense.
Similarly, there may be a time to violate protocol and chill red wine, particularly when summer temperatures drive the thermometer needle into the 90s range. Let’s say that you’re a dedicated red wine person. But it’s bloody hot, and you’re outside standing over the grill, with salmon, chicken, or ribs shooting sparks at your forearms. Yes, yes, you’re probably sipping a beer at the moment, maybe even guzzling it. But when you carry that beautiful platter to the table and sit down to enjoy, a slightly chilled red could be heavenly. But not just any red, preferably it would be a lighter one, maybe a fruity Pinot, a Beaujolais, a Barbera, or maybe a Zinfandel.
Several years ago, I attended a reception and tasting that Wine and Spirits Magazine hosted to honor its top 100 wines. Various tables exhibited particular groups of wines, such as French, Italian, German, Pinot Noir, and so forth. One section was devoted to Napa Cabernet, and behind that table, someone was pouring a particular Napa Cab, which he took from an ice bucket. I was dismayed and asked him why he was chilling this prize-winning Cab. First of all, he had an English accent, which had a bearing on his choice to chill the wine. And secondly, he wasn’t the winemaker, but he had enough clout at the winery so that no one stopped him from committing his sacrilegious act.
In his own defense, he explained that the wine was very ripe and high in alcohol and that chilling it brought up the acid and tannins so that the wine had more structure than it otherwise might have at room temperature. He was absolutely correct, and the wine was delicious. Wine and Spirits Magazine might have though that this was a terrific wine, but the Englishman, who was pouring it, felt that it was not quite balanced. Being English, he was probably weaned on European wines, which have a slightly different emphasis, less alcohol and more acid. So by chilling the wine slightly, he was making a temporary adjustment to the balance of the wine that he felt improved it.
But back to the summer barbecue…. Since Zinfandel is likely to be the highest alcohol wine in the California line-up, it too might be one that you could choose to chill down. Half an hour in the refrigerator or five minutes in an ice bucket would be just fine. And by the way, in case anyone at the table challenges you, tell him or her that the Europeans sometimes chill reds in the summer when the weather warrants it, and they’ve been drinking wine a lot longer than we have.