Chilled Red Wine – Trend or Tragedy?

April 17, 2017 - By 

One of the things I love about wine is the fact that nothing about it seems to be black and white. Myriad shades of grey permeate every facet of this stunning, varied and fascinating drink, and affect the way it is produced – from grape growing to fermenting and bottling – and the way it is drunk and enjoyed, with every country and wine culture seemingly having their own variations and practices.

Most of the practices involved in wine serving and drinking come about as a result of local tastes, traditions and personal preferences. If you’re a Spanish teenager, you don’t bat an eyelid at the suggestion of blending your red wine with coke. For Swedes in the depth of winter, it’s perfectly acceptable to mix your wine with rum and honey, heat it up and drink it with a cinnamon stick and a slice of orange. Such things make the world of wine an interesting one, full of subjective opinions and options.

Different Strokes…?

However, is it fair to say that when it comes to wine serving temperatures, some cultures get it objectively wrong? I spend a lot of time in Eastern Europe, and over there, it’s very common to serve red wine cold. By cold, I don’t mean just chilled (more on that later), but kept-in-the-fridge-overnight cold. If my mother-in-law in Romania is reading this (not very likely, but anyway…) I’d like to point out to her that by over-chilling her red wines, she’s actually doing a spectacular product a tragic mis-service. All of the deep fruit, complex earthiness and spice of these red wines gets squashed and suppressed by the cold temperature it is served at, and the aroma becomes almost totally non-existent.

This isn’t just a dig at my in-laws, by the way. All over the world, people fail to make the most of their red wines by serving them at suboptimum temperatures, and thus inhibiting the finer points of their character. There’s also a big issue, too, with red wines being served a little too warm.

All in all, this is far from a black and white issue: some red wines may just benefit from being served cold, and there’s plenty to be said for personal taste. And what of this year’s trend for wine cocktails and chilled wines? Let’s explore this issue, and find out more.

The Case Against

As mentioned before, chilling red wine at normal fridge temperature can have a pretty devastating effect on all the things which make that wine worth drinking. Especially when it comes to your aged, complex reds – a Bordeaux for example – over-chilling is going to make it not only flat and lifeless (when it should be bursting with character), but downright unpleasant to drink. The reason for this is mainly down to the tannins in the wine. Bold, full bodied reds feature heavily structured tannins – those chemical compounds which provide the typically astringent quality of certain red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon – and tannins can be incredibly bitter when served too cold.

The fine, aromatic qualities of red wine also require a bit of warmth in order to ‘open up’ and fully express themselves. The cold keeps all of those flavonoids and chemicals closely huddled together, and unable to burst from the wine into the glass, and eventually into your nose and palate.

The vast majority of red wines should be served at what is rather unhelpfully termed ‘cellar temperature’ – unhelpful, as most of us don’t keep out wines in a cellar. However, this is generally considered to be a couple of degrees below room temperature; somewhere between 15 and 18 degrees celsius. This temperature is just right for 90% of red wines, as it gives them the chance to be both fresh and sharp on the palate, and also as expressive as the winemaker intended.

Red Wines You Can Chill

Of course, just saying that red wines should be served at ‘cellar temperature’ would be far too simple an answer to this question. Not only is this an issue which is at the whim of personal preferences (maybe my mother in law just likes her wine too cold, flat and lifeless… and who am I to judge?) but it also makes too wide a generalisation for a subject as broad and variant as red wine.

Some lighter bodied red wines are absolutely delightful when served a few degrees lower than ‘cellar temperature’. Because of their low tannin content, they don’t see the negative impact that low temperatures can bring, and many countries and cultures have a wine drinking tradition based around light, airy, bright and zippy red wines, served nicely chilled. On a hot summer’s day, along with some charcuterie or similar, I can think of few things finer than a pleasantly cold (not fridge cold) glass of Beaujolais, Valpolicella or Sangiovese wine, and many other Pinot Noir based wines can also benefit from a limited period of refrigeration.

Exceptions and Trends

This summer is anticipating a rush of chilled red wine trends, which may see everything I’ve written about turned on its head by the prevailing winds of fashion. Lambrusco – a sparkling red wine from the Emilia-Romano region of Italy – is poised to become one of the key wines of the season, and I don’t think anyone will be drinking this wine at any temperature except very chilled, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them poking from the tops of ice buckets in my local wine bar’s back garden. Last summer’s buzz around Moscato is also set to continue and develop, with many people searching for lighter-than-light red wines to also enjoy chilled with their picnics.

Truth be told, I’m not yet fully sold on the concept of wine cocktails. Champagne cocktails, sure. I’ll even go for a Sangria if I’m on holiday and it doesn’t contain anything too weird (I was once served a glass of Sangria with gummy bears swimming in it, and I still shudder when I think of it). But tall, iced glasses of red wine mixed with other spirits are said to be a big thing this year, and part of their appeal is surely their cool, refreshing qualities. I’d imagine you’d also need a light bodied, delicate red wine for these to work… so expect the fridge of your local bar to be stocked with more red than usual.

So, where do you stand on this divisive issue? Do you keep your red wine in the fridge? Or do you just drink it as it comes? Let us know in the comments below.

Benjamin Norris

Benjamin Norris

Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris is a wine critic and journalist from Bristol, UK. He is a lover of life's finer things and has a particular fondness for Alsatian and Eastern European wines, which he fell in love with during his three years working in Budapest.
Benjamin Norris

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9  comments
9 Comments
  • I think chilling red wine is a sin !! That being said .. I was at Vin Amite in Oliver on the weekend .. they chill their Gamay Noir and it is beautiful . Chilling has its place , I guess

  • I used to store my red wine in basement and chill it for about 20 minutes before serving to get it to “cellar temp”. Now I store some in the wine fridge and take it out to warm up to cellar temp. Does storing in a fridge harm/damage the wine?

  • ALL red wine should be chilled. Not “fridge cold” for goodness sake, but chilled. The idea that red should be “room temperature” comes from the Feudal Ages when castle basements was their idea of “room temperature”.

  • 8th Generation makes a summer red called Red One that is meant to be served chilled…and it is delicious! Refreshing and bright! But in general, Cellar temp is about right for me…except Lambrusco…I LOVE Lambrusco and am very excited to hear it could be trending this summer!! Everyone aboard the Lambrusco (NOT Riunite!!) train, I say, starting with Lini910!!

  • Agreed – chilled is chilled not cold. Castle basements were approx 56-58 degrees Fahrenheit!!! I enjoy my reds chilled!

  • In the winter i do not chill my red wine but….now that the warmer weather has arrived i find red wine is just too heavy for me so i have solved the problem(as I love red wine) as i just pop in an ice cube.Delish!

  • Agreed, red wine should be served chilled, 59-63 degrees. I find it insulting when I go to a restaurant in the summer and order an expensive bottle of red and its served room temperature when its 90 degrees out. What a way to ruin a good bottle of red, and an entire experience!

  • Lambrusco along with the Roses were my starter wines. I think 40 years later it may be time to revisit them ! Castelvetro was always chilled as I recall ! As for red wine in general, the rules are meant to be broken and ‘for crying out loud’ drink it at the temperature that suits you. Cheers ! My personal vote would go to the red wine served at 14 – 16 degrees C.

  • Historically, many wine barrels in Europe were below ground to age, as the temperatures were quite cool and consistent, I don’t know but I’m thinking around 60 degrees? I store all my aging wines about 56 degrees but allow about an hour for them to open up before I drink them. One comment was about red wine in winter vs summer and I do agree. I don’t much care if it’s room temperature in the winter, but if room temperature is more than 68 or 70 in the summer, than that is a no-go!

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