Christy Canterbury, Master of Wine
July 7, 2021
We spend a lot of effort sourcing the right wine for the right occasion and for specific food pairings. Yet when we pull the cork, we often overlook two basic but important elements of the wine drinking experience: service temperature and aeration. When considered, these two factors can considerably improve any wine drinking occasion, even the most casual.
The easiest of the pair to control is service temperature. Moreover, wine temperature can even be measured with an instant-read thermometer, like the one you likely already have in a kitchen drawer. Aeration, or better yet oxygenation (more on this below), is not as straightforward, especially if you don't have a dissolved oxygen meter. But don't worry - not even the most lauded sommeliers carry those around!
Happily, you don't have to use instruments and get technical to potentially vastly improve your wine tasting experience. Let's take a look at the roles that temperature and oxygen perform in wine enjoyment and how you can implement simple steps to optimize your wine drinking occasions.
Serving wine at the proper temperature brings out the wine's best aroma and flavor profile. The right temperature also optimizes the wine's structural components. Ideally, flavor, tannin, acidity and alcohol should perform their parts harmoniously and work together. Wine served too cold or too warm will under- or over-emphasize one or more of these characters and make for a less agreeable experience. The wine may not taste bad, but it just won't be optimized.
Granted, personal preference plays a part, and that's entirely fine. However, if the winemaker would serve her or his wine differently (and she or he would definitely pay attention to temperature and aeration), then it's worth at least one try. You can always revert.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to wine service temperatures. After all, a red isn't just a red. There are light, medium, and heavy reds. Some are unoaked, some have neutral oak and some taste like they could be advertising tours for the forests of France. (That's where the most prestigious oak for wine barrels grows). Some reds are fiercely tannic while others are silky smooth. There are old reds and young reds. Some reds are closed with a screwcap and others with corks meant to last decades. That's right: even closures can make a difference in how a wine tastes right out of the bottle!
Today, white wines are generally well-chilled and red wines are served at "room temperature". While white wines can - and often do - benefit from warming up in the glass, red wines served at room temperature will not. This is primarily because today's room temperature is far too warm for most reds. Besides, room temperature varies wildly. Is the room temperature in your dining room the same in winter versus summer? What happens when you take a room temperature red outside for a summer dinner on the patio? It is going heat up above the room temperature inside.
The idea of room temperature is incredibly dated. It's hard to believe this tip has perpetrated wine advice for so long. After all, room temperature in this instance refers to the temperatures of rooms in chilly castles. Today, we call this temperature range of approximately 55-60° F "cellar temperature". If you keep your thermostat set at an energy-efficient, summer temperature of 78° F, your wine could be as much as 20° F higher than its ideal serving temperature!
A good exercise is to trial several different wine styles at two - or even three - different temperatures. For example, pour a glass of chilled white and allow it to sit at room temperature for 20 minutes, then pour another glass fresh from the fridge. Which is better? It might depend on the age or the grape variety. It may also depend on whether the wine has new oak or not. Notice not only the aromas and flavors in each glass but also notice the differences in refreshment between the two glasses. Do the same for a red wine. Pour a glass and place it in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Then, compare it to one poured at room temperature. For the red, pay particular attention to the feel of the tannin, which creates a drying effect on the palate. Also note whether the fruit flavors seem fresher in one glass or the other.
Before you read this section, check your refrigerator temperature setting. You can use a kitchen thermometer if you don't have a digital display. Just leave it on a shelf for a few minutes. You might be surprised by just how cold your refrigerator is!
Sparkling wines are easy: served them cold. However, different sparkling wines show best at different temperatures. Tank-fermented, or Charmat or Martinotti method, sparklers benefit from the coolest temperatures to emphasize their highly fragrant, youthful aromas. Bottle-fermented, or classic method, bubblies don't need to be as cold. While they may be as robust in aromas, they also have more texture from the production method's lees aging. That texture is better showcased at slightly warmer temperatures.
White wines follow similar principles with regard to more aromatic wines, as well as lighter white styles made without new oak use. Wines fermented and aged with some portion of new oak should be served warmer. The same goes for older white wines, even if they are aromatic. For example, a young, dry German Riesling would benefit from a cooler temperature than the same wine with a decade or more of bottle age.
Rosé wines generally can be served based on their colors: paler wines work best at colder temperatures and more deeply-colored rosés work better at slightly warmer temperatures. However, the darkest rosés, which can even look like light reds, should be served at even warmer temperatures - more like a light red wine.
Orange wines, or white wines that have been made with substantial skin contact to impart more flavor and some tannin, should generally be served at the temperature of a mature white wine or at light red wine temperature. As with rosés, the lighter the orange hue, the cooler the temperature can be and vice versa.
When it comes to reds, one trend should be clarified. In the last few years, many restaurants and retailers have been promoting the idea of "chillable reds". The tricky thing is that many of these chillable reds were simply being served at too high a temperature! Were the antiquated idea of room temperature red wine service not pervasive, there would be less novelty in the idea of a "chillable red". However, it is true that some lighter-bodied and lower tannin reds can be chilled a few degrees cooler than usually would be served to a very pleasant effect.
This aside, fresh, unoaked reds and light-bodied, fragrant reds benefit from the coolest temperatures. The further up the scale one goes in tannin, body, and new oak, the warmer the temperature should be. As with mature whites, mature reds should be served at slightly warmer temperatures, too – more, or less the same as fuller-bodied and oaked wines.
Sweet wine temperatures vary greatly based on the wines' sweetness and acidity levels. Generally, the principles for white wines can be followed here. It is worth noting that, if you find the wine in your glass a bit too intense in sweetness, a slightly cooler temperature will help reduce the intensity of the sweetness.
Fortified wines differ based on their style and sweetness levels. Generally, Sherries, Madeiras, Marsalas and white Port follow the guidelines of mature white wines. The lighter the color of the wine and the lower the sweetness level, the cooler the wine can be served. Port, Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes follow the temperature principles of mature red wines.
Between the space and the cost, a wine refrigerator – and especially a customized wine cellar – may be a luxury. However, if you store your bottles in a reasonably cool environment (in a basement, a dark closet, or a room without an exterior wall), it is easy to get them to their ideal service temperatures relatively quickly.
Placing the bottle in the refrigerator or freezer is one of the simplest ways, even if it is not the fastest. If you go the latter route, be sure to set a reminder so that you don't forget the bottle in the freezer! Rest assured that a bottle warms up much more quickly than it chills down, especially once the wine has been poured into glasses. So, don't be too concerned about over-chilling. Twenty minutes in the refrigerator won't do much more than chill the bottle's glass, but twenty minutes in the freezer may be all you need to have your wine ready to serve, depending on the wine style. Here are guides for the approximate amount of time it takes to chill wines, roughly based on color and major style.
What is aeration and why is it talked about so often with wine? While we are at it, let's consider along with aeration terms like "breathe", "open up" and "exposure". All of these terms nod to the fact that wine is a reactive product. The general concept is that wine becomes reactive when exposed to air, or aerated.
What wine really reacts to, however, is the oxygen in the air. Alas, oxygen composes only 21% of the air we breathe. So, though we tend to talk about aeration, what we really want is oxygenation. Like with most things, oxygen can be good or bad for wine. It is all about how much and how long the wine is exposed to oxygen.
Almost any wine, red, rosé, orange or white, benefits from aeration or oxygenation. In fact, sometimes wine gets better after it's been open a good while - even after a few days. In my experience, a wine is better the day after it was opened about 20% of the time. Another 5% of the time, it's even better on the second day after opening! So, if you don't like a bottle when you first open it, it is worth keeping it a few more days (I've even kept them a few weeks) to see how it evolves. After all, wine is a living product. It literally breathes, just like we do.
Granted, if a wine is exposed to too much oxygen for too long, it will turn bad. This isn't like spoiled milk. The wine won't be harmful; it simply turns into vinegar. This can happen to a wine of any age.
Very old wines - say 30+ year-old wines - deserve extra attention as they can be hyper-sensitive to oxygen. While it can be beneficial to decant these older wines to separate the liquid from the sediment, the aeration can sometimes wreak havoc on the tasting experience.
Speaking of decanting, how can you help wines breathe?
The act of aerating wines means increasing the wine-to-air surface ratio. Simply popping a cork and letting the wine sit in the bottle does almost zero aeration. There is only a half-inch surface area of wine in contact with air (of which only 21% is oxygen).
The best way to aerate a wine is to decant it into a wine decanter or a pitcher. (Yes, a plain pitcher really is fine!) Simply pouring the wines into larger-sized wine glasses also works wonders.
How long should a wine be aerated? Generally speaking, the bolder the wine is in flavor, drying tannins and alcohol, the more it will benefit from a longer aeration period. Again, this is assuming the wine isn't exceptionally old.
If you are often short on time, it may be worth investing in a device called the WinePrO2, which directly oxygenates wine. (This is different from an "aerator", which tries to increase the quantity of air incorporated into a glass of wine. I have trialed dozens of them, and they are absolutely, positively not worth your money. They may change a wine, but they only change it momentarily.) The WinePrO2 can oxygenate wine in the bottle or in individual glasses. The device dispenses 100% oxygen into the glass, which immediately does the work of hours of aerating in decanters. (Remember, too much oxygen is not a good thing, so follow the WinePrO2 packaging instructions and oxygenate minimally. You can oxygenate more if you go little by little, but you can't take it back once it's overdone.)
To Regulate Temperature and To Aerate (or Oxygenate)? This Is the Question!
Hopefully, this guide has served to convince you that wine service temperature and wine aeration - or oxygenation - are worth pursuing for any, and all wines in order to maximize your wine drinking experiences. Neither have to take much time or be expensive. If these factors have not been a focus before, with a little experimentation, your wines will soon taste better than ever!