The Ins and Outs (And Dos and Don'ts) of Wine Temperatures
You’ve probably heard about how important it is to serve wine at the right temperature. We’re talking about what will bring out the best in what’s in your glass. We’re not talking about tossing some ice cubes in to chill it down like a cold mug of beer.
We’re casual here at Sail to Trail Wine Works. We just draw the line at a frosted glass of wine. You won’t find ice cubes here, but we do have those fancy whiskey stones that’ll do the same thing.
That said, the temperature is a big deal when it comes to wine. It takes center stage from the vineyard to your friendly neighborhood tasting room to the bottle you open to share with friends. We’ll show you just how essential temperature is if you want to impress your buddies with some cocktail snippets,
Where Grapes Grow
You don’t find grapevines growing just anywhere. There are only certain places it can survive. It turns out these plants are pretty particular about where they set down their roots. Try between 30–50 degrees latitude north and south, with a few outliers in either direction.
How cold it gets is the deciding factor for many varieties. That’s why beach bunny grapes like Grenache do best where it’s warm. Their thin skins can’t handle it. It also affects the taste of the wine in your glass.
Temperature also affects the acidity, sweetness, and potential alcohol content of the wine. If it’s too cold, the grapes will struggle to ripen, leading to mouth-puckering acidity and not enough sugar. If it’s too warm, the grapes will over-ripen, making a wine that is flabby and out of balance.
Some grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, thrive no matter where you put them. That's one reason why you’ll hear them called international or noble grapes. Believe it or not, some like it on the cool side, Riesling for example.
The conditions can also affect when grapes are ready for harvest. For example, Merlot is an early-ripening grape, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon takes its time and ripens later in the season. That’s why the two varieties work so great together to make yummy Bordeaux blends.
Temperature also affects the taste of wines. If you compare a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley in France with the same wine from New Zealand, you’ll know what we mean. It’s almost like you’re tasting all those summer days and tropical fruit.
We’re not done with the temperature yet. The temperature comes into play again in the winery. Winemakers will usually ferment white grapes at lower temperatures for a longer period of time. That will help extract the lovely chemical compounds from the juice that make these wines so delicious. It’s the same for roses, too. It’s slow and cold, baby!
Red wines are a different story because, well, they’re red. And that comes from compounds in the skins. It may surprise you to learn that the juice of most grapes is clear, even from red ones. Of course, it’s not just the color. The skins and stems also add tannins that help age longer. But, hot and fast is the way to go to make the magic happen.
We can’t forget the cellar. It could be just a short visit with wines like Beaujolais Nouveau. Other wines may take up residence for a few years, like Italy’s Grand Riserva Barolos. But what makes a good cellar? The ideal conditions are dark with no sunlight. The bottles should rest on their sides in a place that is free of vibrations. Two other things help ensure you’ll get a good bottle;
The ideal humidity in a cellar is between 65–75 percent. That will prevent the corks from drying out and spoiling the wine. It can also affect the ambient conditions and how the place feels, which leads us to one of the most critical factors. Can you guess?
And yet again, temperature steps up to the plate. [Crowd clapping] The ideal conditions are between 50–60 degrees F. The other thing is that it has to stay consistent. No fluctuations in our cellar! If you can tick off all these boxes, you’re on your way to great wine.
The Problem When Wine Gets Too Hot
Heat speeds up chemical reactions and not just in wine. It’s not a good thing, either. Wine only lasts so long before it goes on that path to becoming vinegar. The last thing you want to do is store the bottles where it’s too warm. But before we go any further, walk away from the ice cube tray!
The production of Madeira flies in the face of everything we’ve just discussed. It tosses cellar conditions and temperature to the wind, with delicious results. The story goes that travelers on the high seas learned that they had to fortify wines so that they could last the journey home without spoiling. Instead of being that guy, everything came together like magic.
Instead of something undrinkable, Madeira became amber-colored elixirs with sweet flavors and aromas. Winemakers today even try to replicate it. They treat it like the wine is still in the hull of the ship. These wines are considered the best of the best.
Some winemakers cut to the chase with stainless steel or concrete vats that they heat up to 122 degrees F! That allows them to get her done in 90 days as opposed to three years. It just goes to show that there is always an exception to the rule.
Chilling Out in the Winery
Winemakers use both warm and cold temperatures to their advantage. With cooler temps, they can do several things. You can soak the grapes and chill the juice below 55 degrees F. That kick starts the color extraction that you want with red wines.
Temperature can also help with white wine production. Tartaric acid (a natural part of most grape’s chemistry) typically stays in it’s liquid form in the wine solution. However, when it precipitates out and forms clumps, they can resemble glass powder (or wine diamonds as they like to call them in the industry). They are perfectly harmless and are actually indicative of a high quality wine, but they look funky nevertheless. If you chill wine to around 25 degrees F, the winemaker can get rid of them.
Yet another way that temperature influences what you drink is with the production of ice wines. Germany and Canada have the corner on this style. Essentially, it involves leaving the grapes on the vine, sometimes into January, where the temperature can get as low as 18 degrees F. That freezes the water and concentrates the flavor. Who knew?
The Champagne Happy Accident
Several myths exist about Champagne. First, Dom Perignon did not create it. Sure, he perfected methods of winemaking. In fact, he was trying to perfect things to get rid of the bubbles! The problem that wineries had back in the day was that ambient cold temperatures stalled fermentation. Then, it started up again in the spring, with the resulting bubbly beverage. The result was a lot of broken bottles.
However, the story of him tasting stars was a marketing campaign of Moët and Chandon. And the French weren’t the first ones to make sparkling wine. That honor belongs to the English. They figured out how to make glass containers stronger first and thus, could take advantage of the style—and the bubbles.
Without a temperature change and its happy consequences, we won’t have Champagne, Cava, and other sparklers. We guess we can cut Dom Perignon some slack.
Temperature also makes the wine when you’re serving it—without ice cubes! Think of how wonderful a frosty mug of lager tastes on a hot summer day versus a lukewarm one. They call it lawnmower beer for a reason! Or imagine a hot mug of hot chocolate after a rousing session of cross-country skiing. You get the idea. Temperature matters when serving beverages, as is the case with wine.
But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Different types and styles of wine taste better at various temperatures. Some can make what’s in your glass taste delightful and others, not so much. It can make some varietals taste sweeter. It can also dull the aromas coming from the wine if it’s straight out of the fridge.
But, it isn’t necessarily true that only whites like a bit of chill. Most red wines would love to hang out at cellar temperature.
Finding the Ideal Temperature
Let’s preface this part of the discussion by asking you to keep an open mind. We’re going to talk specifics that may have you scratching your head. But, trust us. It’s stone cold. Contrary to popular belief, there aren’t two temperatures for wine, cold and room temp. The devil—or angel in this case—is in the details.
Instead of just two target ranges, there are actually ten, depending on the wine. We know that temperature is important. Stop eyeing that ice cube tray! Let’s look at instead like the sommelier at your favorite restaurant or wine bar. Here’s what they’re seeing as they pull your wine from their cellar and get ready to serve to you. These are the ideal temperatures:
- Sweet white wines, such as Rutherglen: 43–47 degrees F
- Dry Sherry, such as Fino and Manzanilla: 43–47 degrees F
- Sparkling wines, such as Champagne and Cava: 47–50 degrees F
- Light white wines, such as Riesling and rosés: 45–50 degrees F
- Medium to full-bodied white wines, such as Chardonnay and Vouvray: 50–55 degrees F
- Light-bodied red wines, such as Beaujolais Nouveau: 50–55 degrees F
- Tawny port and other sweet Sherries: 54–61 degrees F
- Medium-bodied red wines, such as Merlot: 53–55 degrees F
- Full-bodied and aged red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon: 55–-64 degrees F
- Vintage Port: 64–68 degrees F
That’s not a typo with those cooler temperatures for red wines. It may surprise you to see the right temp tames higher alcohol levels. Before you brush it aside, give it a try. Remember that you can control it by taking the bottle in and out of the chiller. The ice—in the chiller— will eventually melt.
Chilling Your Wine
Now, we get to the best part, drinking our wine. Chilling your bottle isn’t hard, but there are better ways than others. Putting a bottle in the fridge is the easiest way to go, of course. About an hour will get white wine in the sweet spot. However, avoid putting it into the freezer unless push comes to shove. It can cool it down too fast, with disastrous results if you forget about it. Wine will freeze.
Using a chiller, whether it’s made of glass, marble, or synthetic material, puts you in control over the wine’s temperature. However, ice alone won’t do the job well, unless your chiller is big enough for the ice and the bottle. A better option is to add water to the ice. Better yet is to salt the water. That will speed up the cooling process considerably. Don’t believe us? Try it!
We’ve given some precise ranges for wine temperatures. You can verify it with a device that you can place over the bottle. It’s accurate enough to put you in the ballpark. You can also MacGyver it, using an instant-read thermometer in your glass or bottle. We suggest letting your taste decide.
Saving Leftover Wine for the Next Day
If you have some leftover wine, the best thing to do is pop it in the fridge. If you have one of those fancy wine preservers, the better. We often like to save some to enjoy later to experience what happens as the wine develops. Sometimes, it almost tastes like we’re drinking a different bottle. You may notice new aromas and flavors that come to the plate with a little age under its belt.
If you want a guided wine tasting, Sail to Trail Wine Works has you covered. We’ll serve you the best wines at the right temperature for the ultimate in enjoying this delightful beverage. We work with some of the finest winemakers in the country to bring you the best bottles to enjoy with us or at home.
As you can see, the temperature is a big deal all through the winegrowing, winemaking, and imbibing of wine. That’s the best part. If you’re still in doubt, try it for yourself. Notice how much better that Cabernet Sauvignon tastes at cellar temperature. We’re sure you’ll agree that the wine temperature is important and the flavor better without the ice cubes.