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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
6 Apr 2019

12 April 2019 Almost every day I receive useful suggestions for keeping wine cool in high temperatures. See the end of this article. 

6 April 2019 A version of this article about serving temperatures is published by the Financial Times. 

While the earth is going to hell in a handbasket, it may seem hideously self-indulgent, even fatuous, to raise this, but then my professional life has been dedicated to frivolity so please bear with me. 

Imagine you're sitting on holiday somewhere warm, glass of wine in hand, waves lapping on a nearby sandy shore, palm trees swaying overhead. A cliché of an idle idyll perhaps, but one with a structural fault.

The problem is that the glass of wine you have paid for will be at its best for only a few minutes. Ambient temperatures will soon convert what was poured as a refreshing drink into a tepid soup. Wines of all colours are affected by this inconvenient phenomenon.

Until recently what one might call warm-wine syndrome applied only in the tropics but nowadays, thanks to global warming, there is many a summer day much further from the equator when wines become uncomfortably soupy.

It's difficult to exaggerate how crucial to wine enjoyment is the temperature at which it is served. If it's too cold, then few aromas will volatilise and it won't seem to taste of anything much. Acidity and the chewy tannins seem to be emphasised, not always to the good, at low temperatures. But if it gets too warm – reds as well as whites and rosés – then the wine loses interest, definition and can start to smell vinegary. Most importantly – especially on a hot day – the wine will no longer seem refreshing. And the first duty of any drink is to refresh.

I'm not advocating the neurotic use of one of those wine thermometers, but ideal serving temperatures range from around 6 to 10 °C (42 to 50 °F) for most white wines. Temperatures at the lower end of this for sparkling wines, in order to retain the carbon dioxide in solution, and for some sweet and particularly light wines. Fuller-bodied whites such as serious white burgundy, top-quality Chardonnays, whites from the Rhône and other Viogniers deserve to be served a bit warmer, say 10 to 14 °C (50 to 57 °F) to encourage their aromas to express themselves. This is about the same ideal temperature range, sometimes called 'cellar cool' because it mirrors the ideal storage temperature for wine of any colour, at which light, fresh reds such as beaujolais, simple Pinot Noirs as well as many ports and sherries show at their best.

Full-bodied reds, especially those with lots of tannin (particularly common in young reds, notably those based on Cabernet Sauvignon), can be flattered by being served rather warmer, up to 18 °C (64 °F).

But all these temperatures are far lower than ambient summer temperatures in most of the world, and are lower than in most temperature-controlled interiors in fact. (The old 'room temperature' ideal serving temperature for red wines belongs to a distant, chillier age.) So how do we keep our wine cool enough to enjoy at its best?

It's pretty easy with spirits and cocktails. You just add another ice cube when your drink gets too warm. But wine and ice cubes are no great friends – partly because they tend to alter the taste and balance, not to mention potency, of the wine. (While judging the world's best sommelier contest in Antwerp recently I was instructed by a past winner as to the approved etiquette for providing wine drinkers with ice cubes: let the customer add their own.)

It can be a good idea in warm weather to serve wine a little too cold – putting red wines in the fridge for half an hour before serving for instance – so that they warm up to the ideal serving temperature, but of course this means that the wine is cooler than ideal initially, and will probably end up as flabby soup anyway.

Oh, the problems we wine drinkers encounter!

Various bits of hardware have been designed to solve our dilemma. My favourite is the vacuum-lined cylinder that keeps a bottle of wine's temperature stable. I have found them very effective even in blazing sunshine, and they take up much less space and energy than an ice bucket.

Ice buckets – much more effective when filled with a mixture of water and ice cubes than with ice cubes alone – are admittedly good at chilling bottles rapidly. In restaurants we often ask for our bottle of red, once tasted, to be cooled in an ice bucket. But they take up a lot of room, use up the energy needed to create and store the ice, and result in bottles that drip inconveniently.

You can buy bits of metal that can be chilled in a deep freeze – spheres or shaped like double-thickness draughts – that will cool drinks without either diluting them or affecting the taste, but I would have thought they could be rather uncomfortable, clinking against the teeth as one sips. And Tam has alerted me to the granite whisky stones sold by John Lewis at £15 for six that do the same job. They come in a pouch which apparently protects the stones from freezer smell.

(I do not advise storing bottles of wine in a deep freeze, by the way. Wine expands rapidly when frozen and has a nasty habit of pushing the cork out of the bottle.)

I have a feeling that there are only two ways to ensure that what we wine drinkers sip is closest to the crucial ideal temperature. The first is to keep the bottle at the right temperature or just below it, either in an ice bucket or in one of those vacuum coolers, and to pour only the smallest of servings each time. And the other is to drink your wine at a lick – hardly an inviting prospect.

I would welcome advice on how to combat warm-wine syndrome. Meanwhile I make the following prediction. As temperatures rise, we are likely to become keener on chillable rather than full-bodied reds. Complex, serious red wines do not show their best in high temperatures, and as summers warm up, and many of us yearn for wines that are refreshing but not always white or pink, I think we will be looking for red wines that respond well to being served cool. See some suggestions below.

RECOMMENDED CHILLABLE REDS
These would all respond well to being served cool because they are low in tannin and/or fairly light-bodied.

Ringleader, Old Vine Grenache 2018 Riverland £5.99 Aldi (low stock at Aldi but virtually the same wine is Morala, Old Vine Grenache 2018 Riverland £8.99 Majestic)

Percheron Old Vine Cinsault 2016 Western Cape £6.99 Purple Foot of Oxfordshire and many more

Jean-Paul Brun, Le Ronsay 2017 Beaujolais £62.50 a dozen in bond Justerini & Brooks

De Martino, Gallardia Cinsault 2016 Itata £14.50 Berry Bros & Rudd

Pedro Parra, Imaginador Cinsault 2016 Itata $23.96 Astor Wines, New York

Domaine Chapel 2017 Juliénas £23.48 Uncharted Wine, £25 Quality Wines, £28 Lechevalier

Jane Eyre 2017 Chénas £25 D Vine Cellars, The Wine Reserve, Morrish and Banham

Le Grappin 2017 St-Amour £26 legrappin.com

Julien Sunier 2017 Fleurie £28.50 Berry Bros & Rudd

Kutch Pinot Noir 2017 Sonoma Coast £360 a dozen in bond Farr Vintners

Tasting notes can be found via our tasting notes database.  Other stockists via Wine-Searcher.com.

SOME FURTHER SUGGESTIONS

@vinoroma writes: 'I freeze pristine, organic, washed grapes and use them as flavour-neutral, non-melting and nice-looking chilling devices for glasses of wine in the summer'.

Cynthia Coutu (see this entry in our wine writing competition last summer) writes: 'I just read your article and thought you might be interested in knowing about this relatively new alternative: an ice bucket with no ice. The sales director of So Fresh sent me a model to test. I am now a convert after tediously testing with a thermometer for several hours :-) What I particularly like about this new concept is:
- the ice packs fit in my scrawny Parisian freezer
- no water dripping everywhere or marking my table
The only downsides I have discovered:
- 'fat' champagne bottles don't fit inside
- the surface of the box is easily marked by greasy fingers, but easy enough to clean

Charles Elvin writes, 'I have a terracotta jug which is only half glazed (the top half) which I bought in either Greece or Italy many years ago. Put cool or cold wine into it (works for red, rosé and white) and through the magic of evaporation (like a primitive fridge) it stays cool as the terracotta slowly 'leaks' through the unglazed portion and becomes damp with the wine (don't worry, it doesn't waste more than a tiny amount). This keeps it cool. The downside is it leaves a wet patch so put it on a plate or a mat. Works for about 30 to 40 mins and is best out of the direct sun and with a mild breeze (remember to order one). So far, that is the best I have found (other than the steel tubes you mention) and it is rather attractive. It also has the advantage of decanting the wine. The design dates back to the Romans... I'm guessing they liked their wines cooler too. I have to say I have not tried it with very high-end red wines (but have with decent ones – such as good cru beaujolais). I have used with top-end whites from Burgundy with no change to the flavour.'

Guy Smith recommends this two-bottle electric wine cooler. You can set the temperature individually for each bottle but it does need to be plugged in. Looks good!

From Belgium comes news of the particularly snazzy (and expensive) Qelviq wine cooler, to be launched later this year. It will be available in Professional (€399) and Sommelier (€499) versions. It can be battery-operated and is silent, apparently. The Sommelier version will come with an app equipped with suggested serving temperatures for 350,000 wines. It looks as though the Professional version will be shipped only to US addresses.

Arne Jensen of Denmark draws my attention to Bodum's double-walled glasses, £35 for a set of four, but allows that they are not exactly an ideal shape for wine. Funnily enough, I'd prefer my wine glass.