Temperature is a crucial factor in wine appreciation, yet it is a factor that is insufficiently appreciated by many consumers. Wine critics and competition judges know that any wine will taste dramatically different when tasted at different temperatures. Similarly, sommeliers and connoisseurs know that the season or even the ambient temperature in a room will affect the appeal of almost any wine--whether advantageously or adversely. Being thoroughly informed about the importance of temperature is one of the most helpful ways to pick better wines and get the most out of them, usually without spending a dime.
I happen to live in Washington, D.C., which turns torrid this time of year and stays that way until late September. Consequently, the wines that I choose and the way that I treat them changes quite notably this time of year. Temperature considerations are important in every season, but they really rise to the fore in summer, so here are four suggestions for thinking about wine in hot weather:
Summer temperatures change the rules for proper serving temperature for wines, both white and red, and getting the temperature right is an easy way to improve any wine under summer conditions.
For most of the year, whites really aren’t at their best when pulled directly from a refrigerator or an ice bucket. Extreme cold blunts their aromas, sharpens their acidity and shortens their aftertaste. However, if you’re going to have a glass of wine on a hot evening, it is worth remembering that the ambient temperature will quickly warm the beverage in your glass.
If you will be enjoying a glass of wine for, say, 12 minutes from start to finish, the point at which the temperature should be perfect would be the sixth minute--not the first. If you or a friend find the wine too cold when it is first served, the situation can be remedied by cupping it in one’s hand for 20 seconds. By contrast, it is much more difficult to deal with a glass that goes warm once it has been served.
Where reds are concerned, you’d be well advised to ditch the conventional wisdom that red wines should be served at room temperature. This made good sense when the rule was established, which was probably in the 19th century by some guy in an English manor house without central heat. The room temperature in question was probably 62 rather than 72 degrees, and on a hot day you’ll find that reds are dramatically improved when served at that lower number.
Reds that are too warm will show too much alcoholic “heat” in their aromas and aftertaste, and will seem soupy and unfocused, with insufficient acidity and almost no refreshment value. When the weather gets really hot, I chill every red that I taste (whether for review or for fun) into the refrigerator for 20 to 30 minutes before opening.
Your guests may think this is strange, but the results are so convincing that you won’t even need to offer an explanation. If you’ll be having friends over for dinner during the next couple of months, and will thus have reason to open two bottles of the same red wine over the course of the evening, chill one of them for 20 minutes to half an hour, while leaving the second at room temperature. I’ll bet that the results will change how you deal with red wine forever.
One of the weirder aspects of “winespeak” is the talk about “acid” and “acidity.” When growing up and being taught lessons such as don’t touch a hot stove, the first thing we learn about acid is: Keep it out of your mouth. Nevertheless, that is a lesson we’ve got to unlearn to appreciate wine in adulthood, especially in a hot season.
Certain types of acids are indeed harmful, but the fact is that other types (especially tartaric, malic and citric acids) are natural, beneficial components in grapes and other fruits. All refreshing drinks enjoyed by humans contain acidity, which is a vital component that works in relation to sweet and bitter elements to produce pleasing taste sensations.
Although excessively acidic wines can seem unpleasantly tart or sour, wines lacking sufficient acidity will strike almost everyone as flat, unfocused, and “flabby.” As temperatures rise, we naturally crave drinks with more acidity, as evidenced by the somewhat seasonal popularity of lemonade and lemon-spritzed iced tea, which are appealing specifically because of their high content of citric acid. Similarly, those wines that we particularly value for refreshment (e.g., Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling) we value precisely on account of their unusually high levels of acidity. It is also worth noting that almost all sparkling wines are quite high in acidity, since this is required to carry the flavors through the effervescence.
In practical terms, the importance of acidity connects to the two points that precede and follow this one. First, remember that acidity is more evident in solutions that are colder, so chilling wines thoroughly is not only a good idea in its own right as a way to deal with hot conditions, but also crucial as a way to accentuate the specific element in wine that refreshes us. Second, wines vary in their acidity based on the climates in which the grapes are grown. Cooler regions ripen grapes more modestly, producing less sweetness but more acidity. So, as the following point will emphasize, the smart money deals with hot weather with wines from cool locations.
This point is not based on subjective interpretation but rather on hard facts of biology and chemistry. As a wine grape (or any other fruit) ripens, sugar increases and acidity decreases. (If you buy five nectarines and taste one each day in succession, you can taste this process at work.)
Ripening is accelerated in hot climates, and slowed in cool ones. A hot climate delivers a double whammy to the refreshment value of the wines made in it, first by reducing the acidity that offers direct refreshment, and second by driving up sugars. When sugars are fermented, they result in higher alcohol and greater richness in the finished wine, both of which work contrary to the objective of refreshment.
An interesting twist is that acidity is not a straightforward function of daytime heat in a winegrowing region. It is, rather, a more complex result of a region’s “diurnal range,” meaning the swings in temperature between day and night. Unremittingly hot weather will literally decompose the acids in a wine grape, but the effects of a hot day can be remedied by cool nights, which preserve acidity. Thus it is possible to produce refreshing wines from seriously hot places, provided that they also have particularly cool nights.
High altitude locations fit this bill particularly well, and two dramatic examples are provided by Rueda (which makes very crisp wines from the Verdejo grape in central Spain) and the Cafayate Valley, where Torrontes excels in northern Argentina. These are two places that often see swings of 40 or 50 degrees between temperature extremes within a single day.
Another twist is that climate seems to trump “varietal character” when it comes to the refreshment value of wines. Although it is true that certain grape varieties tend to be a bit leaner and more refreshing by nature than others, these profiles are not “absolutes.” For example, most Chardonnays from California or Australia are big, rich and creamy rather than lean, linear and zesty. However, Chardonnay from a particularly cool climate like Chablis in northern Burgundy is among the world’s most refreshing wines.
Finally, it is worth noting that “varietal character” is not absolute because can be affected by decisions made by wine producer.
In the vineyard, decisions on when to pick the grapes can be vital in determining the acidity levels and hence refreshment value of the resulting wines. A telling case in point is provided by Pinot Grigio, which is crisp and refreshing precisely because producers in northern Italy pick it very early, before sugars rise and acids fall. Conversely, the same grape is treated in the opposite manner when making most renditions of Pinot Gris in Alsace, where late picking results in soft, sweet, low-acid wines.
In the winery, a winemaker need not simply play the cards dealt by nature if he or she is working in a region in which wine production laws permit the artificial enhancement of acidity. In most cases, these are regions that have hot, sunny climates in which low acidity is a chronic challenge. Thus, laws in California and Australia permit the “adjustment” of acidity levels by the addition of tartaric acidity, and winemakers routinely avail themselves of this option.
If skillfully performed, these adjustments may not be apparent in the finished wines. However, no winemaker would prefer to adjust acidity levels artificially if it were possible to work with grapes that are naturally balanced. This is why acidification is prohibited in most European regions, which can usually get all the acidity they need. However, the flip side of this coin is that most of these same European regions struggle with the opposite challenge of attaining optimal ripeness, and hence these regions may permit additions of sugar--a practice forbidden in California and Australia.
I hesitate to add suggestions about grape varieties because I believe that the whole concept of “varietal character” is a bogus notion.
Defending this stance fully would require an entire column, but the basic idea is easy to convey. Chardonnay, for example, does not have a particular profile, but rather a range of possible profiles resulting from where it is grown and how it is vinified. A rendition grown in Australia’s Hunter Valley and fermented in new oak barrels will be hugely different from one grown in Chablis and vinified in stainless steel tanks.
Moreover, the differences are directly pertinent to temperature considerations: Chablis is a great wine for a hot night, and a thick, oaky Chardonnay from the Hunter is, in my opinion, just about as bad a choice as one could make. Likewise, a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand will probably be terrific in this situation, whereas a barrel fermented rendition from California will be nowhere near as refreshing.
So why am I including this fourth suggestion at all? Basically, because it remains true that different grape varieties are more or less likely to produce refreshing wines, even though exceptions abound.
In my view, the climate of the growing region and the techniques employed by the winemaker are both more salient than the grape variety used to make a wine. However, casual consumer can’t be expected to know the climate profile of all the world’s growing regions, and most wine labels don’t disclose production techniques. Therefore, a list of which grapes are most likely -- other factors being equal -- to produce refreshing wines will probably do more good than harm. So, I’ll close by listing my top candidates, in alphabetical order:
White: Albariño, Arneis, Assyrtiko, Godello, Grüner Veltliner, Moschofilero, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Sylvaner, Torrontes, Verdejo, and Verdicchio.
Red: Agiorgitiko, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Dolcetto, Gamay, Lemberger (a.k.a. Blaufrankisch) Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and Tempranillo.
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