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Chilling Thoughts

How to find the perfect temperature for your reds and whites.

September 16, 1998|DAVID ROSOFF SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Oh, the fickle ice bucket, lurking inconspicuously in the dining room corner. It can strip the life out of a brazen white wine or just as easily revive a simmering red.

No wine, however noble or well-made, can survive being served at the wrong temperature. On being plunged in freezing water, the showiest Chardonnay will recoil in horror and refuse to show a hint of flavor. The best-bred Bordeaux, sweating in the heat of summer, forgets its manners and lashes out with alcohol and astringency.

Yet bottle after bottle, in restaurants and at home, is diminished by being served at the wrong temperature. Consumers balk at steep wine prices--and then choke the life out of their new purchase. Talk about lack of value!

The wine industry is guilty of not having educated consumers in this area and, as a result, many people are settling for a fraction of what their favorite bottlings have to offer. The good news is that this is a relatively easy puzzle to solve. Although there are no hard and fast rules, some useful guidelines can go a long way toward maximizing your enjoyment of your Montrachet or Margaux.

The guideline for serving temperatures has historically been chambre, or room temperature. Should wine be served below, above or just at room temperature? What constitutes room temperature? When the term was devised, in pre-central heating days, it is unlikely that the temperature in homes got much above 50 degrees. Today 70 to 80 degrees is the norm. Thus, any bottle at room temperature is far too warm, so the term has become obsolete.

So what is a reliable starting point? Central Coast winemaker Bryan Babcock says that if you want to simplify things, a perfect default point is at 60 degrees. "If everything was served at that temperature, it would be a pretty good deals" he assures. And, in fact, you would never be too far off with that approach. However, a bit of micro-management can make the difference between a good and a great bottle of wine.

To set the stage, lighter-bodied, more perfumed wines can generally take a heavier chill. As the body and volume increase, so can the temperature.

Our sense of smell is susceptible only to vapors. Temperature dictates, to a great extent, when the flavor compounds in a wine will volatilize, dancing out of the wine and onto your palate.

Aromatic whites, such as Muscat, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, have such exuberant components that it takes cool temperatures just to keep them in the glass. They release their aromas far more rapidly than a dense, brooding red wine. If served too warm, these essences will deplete quickly. In no time you may find your bracing German Riesling dull and flaccid.

In most cases, the volatile components in red wines, especially aged or age-worthy red wines, are less volatile than in whites. Red wines require warmer temperatures to fulfill their potential. In addition, at lower temperatures the palate is more susceptible to tannin, the bitter, drying sensation inherent in many red wines. Thus, a full-bodied red served too cold will appear dull and rough. Regardless of price or praise, it will not deliver the qualities you paid for.

But this doesn't mean all whites should be chiled. A good chill will suit your Entre-Deux-Mers just fine but will bundle up your grand cru white Burgundy. Similarly, voluminous Cabernet Sauvignon or Cote-Rotie will seem hard and surly if served too cold, but a young, fresh Beaujolais or Sancerre Rouge will love a little chill. In fact, this is one of summer's great pleasures. Try one of these vibrant, aromatic reds at lunch with your salmon salad or grilled chicken sandwich.

There is nothing declasse about cooling a red wine. Assume, particularly at this time of the year, that most reds are coming to you at too high a temperature because of improper storage. A few moments on ice will restore finesse and elegance, bringing the wine back into focus.

A few familiar grapes play outside the lines. The popular style of buttery, barrel-aged Chardonnay contains fewer volatile fruit compounds and more of the less volatile wood compounds than other white wines. A serving temperature between what works for fragrant whites and full-bodied reds will best extract their densely loaded fruit and oak elements.

Likewise, the noble but elusive Pinot Noir, by stature a grape that should be able to withstand the upper end of the temperature spectrum, relies heavily on delicate aromas and flavors that can become too aggressive at warm temperatures. Serve it a few degrees cooler than other full-bodied reds.

A good chill is also called for with dessert wines because the palate is more sensitive to sugar at high temperatures. If these are served too warm, the sugar will dominate the acid and fruit and the wine will appear sappy and cloying.

Whatever the wine, a good rule of thumb is to start with the bottle a few degrees cooler than it should be and let the wine unfold and reveal itself throughout the course of your meal.

Even then, do not go to extremes. You don't want your 1961 Mouton-Rothschild to wait until you're paying the bill to start singing!

Rosoff is restaurant and wine manager at Michael's Restaurant, Santa Monica.

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