By Dana Nigro and Wine Spectator staff
Seems like serving a wine should be easy enough: Just open and pour. But anyone who has ever struggled with a crumbling cork, or listened to a debate over whether the Cabernet they’re drinking needs to “breathe” more, knows that sometimes it’s not quite so simple.
Ever had a glass of wine that came highly recommended but was underwhelming to you, or been disappointed by a wine you had loved previously? Maybe the wine simply wasn’t served in a way that allowed it to shine. Temperature and glassware can significantly affect a wine’s aromas and flavors, as can the practice of decanting. Understanding how and why will help you decide what’s best for your particular wine and occasion.
Here are some guidelines on serving temperatures for different wines, as well as quick fixes for chilling down or warming up a bottle.
When it comes to serving temperature, a wine should be just right. Too hot and the wine’s alcohol will be emphasized, leaving it flat and flabby. Too cold and the aromas and flavors will be muted and, for reds, the tannins may seem harsh and astringent. Too often, white wines are served straight out of a fridge while reds are opened at a toasty room temperature, neither of which are ideal. What’s “just right” for you is a matter of individual taste, but here are some general guidelines:
If your wines have been sitting out at room temperature, well, first we recommend you read our article on How to Store Wine. It can take an hour or two in a fridge to chill a white or bubbly down to the right temperature, and there’s no harm in sticking a too-warm red in there for a little while too. On the other hand, a red pulled from a cellar, cooler or fridge may need up to a half-hour sitting out at room temperature. If you can afford it, it’s handy to have a small wine cooler with temperature settings up to 65° F; you can use that to hold bottles you want to open for dinner or a party.
Barring that, how do you know if the wine has reached serving temperature? Instant digital thermometers can take a wine’s temperature through the bottle, and there are other models you can stick in the mouth of an open bottle. But it’s easy enough to touch the bottle and guesstimate; it should at least be cool to the touch. After enough trial and error from opening and tasting, you’ll learn what feels “right.”
Need a quick fix? If the wine is too warm, immerse it in a mix of ice and cold water—this chills a bottle more quickly than ice alone because more of the glass is in contact with the cold source. It may take about 10 minutes for a red to 30 minutes for a Champagne. You can even stick a bottle in the freezer for 15 minutes. (Don't forget it though or it may freeze and push the cork out!)
If the wine is too cold, decant it into a container rinsed in hot water or immerse it briefly in a bucket of warm water—but don’t try anything with high heat. If the wine is only a little cold, just pour it into glasses and cup your hands around the bowl to warm it up.
Keep in mind that a wine served cool will warm up in the glass, while a wine served warm will only get warmer. It’s always better to start out a little lower than the target temperature.