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Wine Temperature: The 20/20 Rule

Michael Wreyford Michael Wreyford
Temperature and expectation play a big part in how we enjoy everything from our vacations to our meals, and yes, to our wines.

Ever had an experience like this? You take a sip of a delicious soup just served to you and burn your tongue because it was too hot. Or take a first bite of a beautiful grilled salmon filet only to find that it's cold!   

Your first impression was probably something like ‘this isn't right’ followed immediately by ‘this doesn't taste as good as I'd expected.”’

Talk to any chef and they'll tell you that serving temperature is one of the most fundamental elements to serving a quality meal that reflects the flavors and ingredients used to create a delicious and memorable taste experience. The same holds true with winemakers.

The big chill

Think about it. When was the last time you went wine tasting at a winery? Were you lucky enough to get a ‘behind the scenes’ visit to the barrel room or wine cave?

If so, you would have immediately noticed the change in temperature. Wine cellars, barrel rooms and caves tend to be around a stable temperature of 55-60°F (12-15°C).

This is the optimal temperature for long term ‘aging’ of wine. Note I mentioned the word ‘stable’ – because wine ages best in a cool, dark, stable environment. The less jostling about and variants in temperature is the better for the long, continuation of the aging process and the better quality of wine when it finally reaches your table.

Which leads me to step back a moment and differentiate between serving temperature and storing temperature. There is a difference and once you know why, you'll feel much better about buying that next case or two of wine, knowing that it will be perfectly preserved many years down the road.

Feel the heat

As I mentioned, the cellar temperature of most winery barrel rooms or caves is a consistent 55-60°F (12-15°C), day after day, month after month and year after year.

It's only when the bottles leave the winery cellar that they are exposed to temperature changes which can sometimes be damaging, or at the very least, affect the quality and longevity of the wine.

For the most part, the majority of wine stores, online wine retailers and wine clubs are all very meticulous on shipping and storage. Some actually have restrictions on shipping to certain regions in the summer as extended times in the delivery truck on a hot day can ruin the best of wines. And nobody wants that.

So when it comes to serving wine, we definitely want to be aware of a few things. What are the varietals we'll be serving? What is the occasion or environment, and what are we serving it with? Formal dinner, social gathering, or backyard BBQ? All of these settings may call for a different selection of wines.

The 20/20 rule

As a general rule, I recommend what I refer to as the 20/20 rule. That is, if your reds are simply sitting somewhere in your house, in a wine rack on the wall or table for example, they would naturally be at the ambient temperature of the room. And depending on the region and time of year, that may be upwards of 75°F (24°C), which is way too warm to be serving a red.

Conversely, if you're storing your whites in the fridge, which usually registers around 35°F (2°C), the wine will be far too cold to appreciate all of the aromas and flavors the winemaker wants you to appreciate and enjoy.

So, the 20/20 rule is to simply to put the reds IN the fridge for 20 minutes or so, and take the whites OUT of the fridge 20 minutes or so before serving. This will ensure that each wine is at the optimal temperature for enjoying all that the winemaker intended.

Take three glasses…

Try this experiment to see what I'm referring to when it comes to aromas and flavor.

Take your favorite wine - both red and white - and get three glasses out for each wine. Pour one glass with a white or a red wine at their optimal serving temperature. Reds between 63-68°F (17-20°C), and whites between 48 -55°F (8-12°C).

In the other two glasses, chill one down with ice or chill it in the fridge, and the other, heat slightly on the stove or for a few seconds in the microwave. Then perform your own taste test.

You'll notice that the colder the wine, the more ‘closed down’ it tends to be. Very few aromas and very little taste, other than acidity and tartness.

The warm wines, although they often ‘smell’ fruitier and lush, tend to be flatter, more pronounced alcohol and, well hotter. Not good!

So, the next time you're serving wine, remember the 20/20 rule. Pop your reds into the fridge 20 or so before you plan to serve them and pull the whites out 20 minutes or so before you want to enjoy them. Cheers!