In summer wine should be refreshing, not just taste good. This means drinking something that’s cool, fairly light and has a decent slug of acidity, which is what we mean by crispness. So yes to Vinho Verde, and no to a big, placid, oaky chardonnay. Also yes to keeping your bottles in a cooler in the shade and pouring smallish glasses that won’t be urine-warm by the time you’re halfway down.
So far, so obvious, but it’s surprising how rarely we bother to apply it, and above all how rarely we apply the same thinking to red wine.
The popular fashion in red wine in the UK, at least in the supermarkets and chains, is for big, soupsweet, blandly agreeable wines. They’re like celebrities who’ve been coached in PR and never say anything wrong, and may as well never say anything at all; their noises fill a moment and are then instantly forgotten. These wines are actually ingeniously made—you can read about it here—but they’re made to be comforting, not refreshing. They’re a baby’s blankie when what you want in the summer is a snowball in the face. The case is made worse when, as so often, they’re served used-dishwater warm.
I know people who will drink wines like these when it’s 25–30 °C, with them left baking in the heat, and they taste like grapey saliva with notes of surgical spirit.
Just as with white wine, a nice bit of acidity gives a red wine pep, while in some cases a little bit of chew from bitter tannins also works, as with bitter and refreshing Campari or Aperol. Lightness is also preferable, and temperature is as important as it is with white wine. At the very least your red shouldn’t taste cooked, while many repay being cellar cool or even chilled. In fact, chilling even the slack-jawed comfort wines can give them a bit more snap and it’s something I sometimes try to rescue boring wine.
Most red wine is served too warm, regardless of weather and season. You probably don’t want to serve even a big brute of a winter red much above 18 °C.
Above 20 °C wine begins to taste cooked, soupy and heavy in alcohol. It loses all snap, edge and structure. As it gets hotter it begins to turn to degrade permanently.
Cooling wine reduces its sweetness, accentuates its acidity and tannins, and brings out the fruit; it makes it more refreshing. It can also make it seem more structured and taut. However, it will also reduce its complexity and isn’t good for full, tannic or oaky wines, which can become harsh.
The principles are these.
The warmer a wine is, the more volatiles it emits, which gives the impression of greater aroma and flavour. Lighter wines give off volatiles more readily than full-bodied ones, and will do so at lower temperatures. Hence you lose less from chilling them. This applies equally to reds and whites.
There are upper and lower limits. Jancis Robinson says that “If you want to get the maximum flavour from any wine—red, white, or pink—you should drink it at a temperature between 15 °C and 18 °C.”
Robinson adds, however, that “There is another factor to consider: we cherish wine’s ability to refresh us, as well as intrigue us with its flavour.” Hence it’s a balancing act that depends in part on context as well as the wine you’re drinking.
When wine is hot it begins to turn acetic, i.e. starts to become vinegar. You’ll have noticed a funny sort of off-sherry or cooked flavour from wine that is either too warm or has been stored somewhere warm—such as, all too often, a restaurant. If the wine is all racked up by the open-plan kitchen, watch out. And if you don’t mind looking like a pretentious dick, ask for an ice bucket for your red when it’s hot, it may help, even if it can’t turn acetic acid back into wine.
Normally you would cool red wine down to 12–16 °C, with something like Beaujolais at the lower end and something more serious like Chianti at the upper end. Below 12 °C even light reds are likely to start tasting muted and harsh, with only the acidity and tannins surviving the deadening effect of cold.
On the other side, alcohol is one of the volatiles emphasised by warmth, and warm wines can taste unpleasantly boozy, especially if they are strong to start with.
If you chill a wine it’ll become warmer quite quickly; within half an hour it’ll probably be at the ambient temperature. Hence there’s not much risk from over-cooling the wine, much less than over-heating it. Plus it’s pretty agreeable for it to start off refreshing and then end up more flavoursome, and you can always cup your glass in your hand like a brandy balloon and warm it on its way.
Doing the chilling
- Use an ice bucket with a mix of ice and water and cool for ~10–15 minutes.
- Cool in the fridge for 25–30 minutes. (Fridges tend to be around 5 °C.)
- Put the bottle in a wine cooler after chilling to keep it from warming too quickly, or use an ice bucket with only a little ice.
- If you have a lot of guests fill something like a large container (I use a huge gardening bucket from the local hardware store) with a lot of water and a lot of ice. You can keep a dozen bottles and cans very cold, and dip the red in for a quick cooling whenever you want. It’s also a good way of storing it pre-drinking to make sure it doesn’t ‘cook’, you can always take out for 10 minutes to warm. Keep the container in the shade, if you can.
Some red wines for summer
Traditionally, northern Europe has been the place to find light, easygoing reds—as wine writer Andrew Jefford put it, many “have the texture of a white wine, yet the curranty perfumes and flavours of a red; they are delicious chilled”. However, there are now many, many good options from all over the world, from high-altitude pinot noir in Argentina through to exotic-seeming blends of native and ‘international’ grapes from Croatia. I’m not going to try to be inclusive, because that would be madness, but here are few grapes and places to look out for.
- Beaujolais (mostly gamay).
- Loire Valley reds (cabernet franc, gamay, pinot noir).
- Pinot noir from Argentina, New Zealand, the Pacific Northwest, Eastern Europe, etc. You wouldn’t cool the more ‘serious’ wines much, however, e.g. good Burgundy should be 16 or 17 °C.
- Bonarda from Argentina.
- Various Italian, e.g. basic Valpolicella and Bardolino (mostly corvina) and lighter sangiovese, including some Chianti.
- Young Côtes du Rhône.
- Some grenache/garnacha (including the above).
- Some basic tempranillo (the Rioja grape).
- Light Greek reds.
The best way to find which work for you is to experiment, though if you have a good local wine merchant, ask ’em for advice.
Tip: be cautious about cooling wines made predominantly from cabernet sauvignon, syrah/shiraz and other hefty grapes; going too far down doesn’t usually suit them.
Trivia: some winemakers use a technique called carbonic maceration to make light, approachable reds. This is particularly the case in Beaujolais, though it’s now being employed in innovative ways in the New World, e.g. Argentina.
A final word from Argentina
Our wines are usually high in alcohol because we have a lot of sun in all of our wine regions, so the best thing is to serve the red wines slightly chilled. Depending on how complex and old the wine is, it can be served from 14 to 17° C. Younger, lighter and fruitier styles should be served cooler than more complex, full-bodied and aged wines.