Serving red wine chilled is by no means a new concept, yet there are very few consumers or even On Trade venues serving their reds at the optimum temperature. Anthony Hamilton Russell stresses that “the idea of letting reds warm up to room temperature is an old European one, where cellars were often around 13°C year round (or colder), while rooms were also colder”.
David Cope of Publik Wine Bar in Cape Town believes that serving temperature can make or break whether a wine tastes good. “I find that chilled, lighter reds make great refreshing, lively wines that can be enjoyed without food. But this is not done or understood nearly enough in South Africa.”
Vagabond is a hip independent wine shop and bar with three sites across London, and for Colin Thorne serving temperature is “mighty important”. He explains, “Lighter-bodied reds seem to perform best at lower temperatures, while higher alcohol reds such as Amarone delle Valpolicella or some Californian reds seem to moderate their alcohol levels with a gentle chill.”
William Sheard, manager at Donostia restaurant and sommelier at Lurra restaurant, both in London, explains that “throughout the year, we make sure to have at least one chilled red available. While numerous customers have never tried chilled red wine, their reaction is almost always positive. We have many who return and specifically ask for ‘that chilled red’.”
One of the positives of serving red wine chilled is the lower perception of alcohol – making it an easy way to entice those more sensitive drinkers. Neil Grant of Burrata in Cape Town explains, “Alcohol can show its ugly head when wine is served too warm, while it will soften when the wine is served slightly chilled, showing more fruit purity.”
But what about the reaction from customers when served a chilled red wine? “Ten years ago, it was not taken well. However, over the past few years guests have come to understand serving certain wines at lower temperatures,” Neil says. “I also feel that if you explain to a customer why you are serving a particular style fairly chilled, they seem happy to trust you.”
So why is this not done more in a country known for its slightly higher alcohols and temperatures? “The problem is a lot about restaurant owners not willing to invest in pricy wine cellars. However, if you are serious about running a restaurant then why cut corners and serve wine at the wrong temperature? It’s time we all lifted the bar!”
There is no right answer for everyone and Ken Forrester believes that while serving temperature is critical, “it's not a one size fits all definition. People have their own peculiar wants and tastes. The single most important issue is the alcohol, which is unstable and starts to vaporize over 18°C, obscuring the actual fruit flavour.”
Victoria Burt MW, WSET Certified Educator in the UK, explains that it is generally believed that reds with low tannins, like Beaujolais and Valpolicella, can be served at lower temperatures than those with higher tannins, like Bordeaux, Australian Shiraz and Barolo. “Given that chilling increases the perception of tannins and mutes aroma and flavour, chilling red wines with high tannin levels can make them seem unbalanced, even thin and harsh. We generally recommend that light-bodied reds be served at around 13°C and medium- or full-bodied red wines at 15-18°C.” For those at home, 13°C roughly translates to about 30 to 40min in the fridge.
While all red wines seemingly benefit from a degree of chilling, the question is which ones should be served cold, at around 13°C? Will prefers a Mencia from Valdeorras at Donostia and in Lurra, they serve a chilled Cabernet Franc from Bourgueil. “Both have low tannins, light bodies and lots of crunchy fruit,” he says.
In South Africa, Neil serves Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cinsault chilled. “These are light-bodied enough and more aromatic, therefore by chilling the wine you don’t close off any of the flavours,” he says.
Another perhaps less obvious South African grape that, depending on style, can benefit from chilling is Pinotage, like Anthony’s Southern Right Pinotage. And while Ken wouldn’t necessarily recommend the majority of his red wines to be served cold, he explains that “for a summertime alfresco luncheon the Petit Pinotage takes on a fruit-driven, almost Beaujolais style when kept in an ice bucket and served cold”.
In addition to wine style, Colin believes that the weather also plays an important part. “A lot of the experience comes from the ambient temperature that the wine is consumed in. A hot, humid London summer's day complements chilled red better than grey, damp, frigid January evenings!”
So while not all red wines were made to be served cold – and not all days were meant for chilled reds – proper serving temperature is critical to showcase and enjoy red wine’s full potential.