The rule book dictates that we chill whites and serve reds at room temperature. Well, the rule book is wrong. Unless you live in a house as cold as a Scottish dormitory, red wines are far from their best at room temperature. They taste jammy, almost viscous, and they're especially slack with foods. As they sit on the table, warming up even more, they seem to breathe so fast they're practically panting. It's not uncommon for them to open up, then die in the glass.
To get the best out of red wines, start them off chilled. Whether you're drinking "two-buck chuck" or Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon '85, a pass on the ice will enhance it. The result will be a wine still in good condition as the pastry plates are being cleared and you are savoring the last drops in the glass.
The trick is steeling ourselves to break The Red Rule in the first place. Ask for chilled red in a restaurant, and the wine waiter might well treat you like you're crazy, or a rube. "The Volnay you ordered is actually red, madam."
But ask the wine waiter to humor you. Unless the restaurant's reds are served cellar temperature, a condition that is as rare as cellars in California, they'll benefit from a quick chill. In fact, for some wines, such as red Burgundies, it is the mark of a really good restaurant if they automatically offer to chill it for you.
The reason is that wine temperature is a kind of volume control. The warmer a wine is, the more we taste it. The cooler it is, the more subdued the flavors and aromas become. In even the best wines, not all flavors are born equal and when they warm up, unruly ones can dominate or destroy the structure or balance of even excellent wines.
The importance of chilling is most obvious with whites. They're undrinkable warm. Even the best white Burgundy tastes flabby at room temperature. The oak on the Chardonnay seems to separate out into a resinous slick, while the fruit tastes fat, almost rancid, instead of buttery. But chill it, and the fruit, oak and acidity come together and you have one of the great wines. Chill it too much, and whites become indistinguishable from each other. A flowery Condrieu might as well be a Sauvignon Blanc. Releasing the frozen flavor is easily remedied by taking the bottle out of the ice bucket.
Reds are far more palatable at room temperature, so we often don't question whether they can be made better. But the same firming up of the flavor, the same consolidation of acidity and fruit that we all recognize in whites will also happen with reds.
This is most important at the table. Balance and structure are what give any wine the ability to stand up to food. Serve a red too warm and it loses its balance. The acidity is hard to detect, and it can be cloying with a daube of beef. But firm it up, and it will be the perfect thing to chase the rich, sweet flavors of mashed potatoes, garlicky leg of lamb and caramelized vegetables from the roasting pan.
How much you chill a red depends on the wine. Beaujolais Nouveau should be put on ice and kept there, or it will taste like alcoholic Kool-Aid. A Brouilly perhaps, with its dancing cherry and chocolate notes, benefits from a good chill, then being left on the table. A decently aged red Burgundy, say a nice Beaune the color of old velvet with a blowzy Pinot funk, still will want chilling but just enough to firm it up. These wines have beautiful fruit, but they have a morning-after quality when they're too warm. Yet chill them too much, and you kill the delicate flavor. Grab it off the ice after about five minutes.
New world Cabernet Sauvignons need chilling for a different reason. These big answers to the clarets of Bordeaux wear their structure like new uniforms: big oak, big fruit, reasonable acidity. Chilling them gives them that touch of finesse that, in a French wine, would be the more gravelly undertones imparted by the soil and by Old World winemaking.
Chilling the New World Merlots and Syrahs is more a case of using temperature as a replacement for structure. These wines are big and jammy. By contrast, when blended into Rhones, they can be served warmer. But the Rhones too benefit from a slight chill.
When it comes to chilling the wines at home, many of us don't have ice buckets, ice makers or cellars. The vogue for air-conditioned wine cases was about as meaningful as a sale down at the Jaguar dealership. Keeping reds in the fridge is risky: It's too easy to forget to remove them in time, and serving them stunned with cold is worse than serving them at room temperature.
However, conditioning a red for the table takes no more than a window sill or porch. On a cool autumn evening, stand the wine out on the patio or porch or, if you trust your neighbors, the front stoop.
If you've uncorked it or decanted it, by all means put gauze over the top to keep interested insects from taking the plunge. Then, when you serve it, even if you aren't on your best form, your wine will be.