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Chilling Red Wines
By Michael Apstein
Aug 20, 2013
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I had to look twice.  On a warm June night in a lively Paris bistro many years ago, diners had bottles of Crozes-Hermitage in ice buckets.  I found this surprising, because the wines were red and conventional wisdom tells us to serve red wines at room temperature or--among sophisticates--at “cellar” temperature, but certainly not chilled. 

Although the French drink lots of rosé in the South during their prolonged summer vacations, it’s clear from looking around restaurant tables that they frequently chill red wines.  This is not unique to Paris, either.  From three-star Michelin restaurants to the simplest country kitchen, bottles of reds are routinely plunged into ice buckets during the summer months.  You see the same phenomenon in Italy and, although less often, in California as well.

It turns out to be a great idea--especially for those of us who fail to be swept away by the tsunami of enthusiasm for rosé.  Of course, rosés are refreshing and go well with a wide variety of simple summertime fare.  But most lack the level of complexity that can be found in red wines, and there are plenty of reds that can be as refreshing as rosés when chilled.  Plus, there are many times that a rosé just doesn’t work.  Burgers, skirt steak and a butterflied leg of lamb on the grill all demand red wine.  An added benefit is that the red wines most suitable for chilling are the less “important” (read less expensive) ones.  Classified Bordeaux, expensive Napa Valley Cabernet or Grand Cru Burgundy are best left in the cellar awaiting cooler weather.

When chilling red wines, it’s important not to go overboard.  You want them chilled, not ice cold.  Citing the proper temperature for serving is foolhardy since even the geekiest of the wine geeks does not carry a thermometer.  And serving temperature depends on the wine, the ambient temperature and humidity.  I’ve seen diners pulling bottles out of the ice buckets when they deemed the wines too cold and then plunging them back as they warmed too much.  Like Goldilocks, you learn very quickly when the temperature is “just right.”

Light and Lively

Though a wide variety of reds from around the world are ideal for chilling, some wines, such as tannic or muscular ones, are not.  Reds with substantial tannins, whether the tannins come from the grape itself, like Cabernet Sauvignon, or from aging in oak barrels, should be avoided because chilling accentuates their astringency.  Heavy or muscular reds in general don’t transmit the freshness and vivacity you’re looking for in summertime drinking.  Light or very fruity reds fit the bill perfectly--and not just those from France.  Many reds from California, Oregon, and Italy, among other places, take a chill nicely while delivering real substance.    

Beaujolais and Pinot Noir

Beaujolais remains the quintessential red wine for putting in the ‘frige for 30 minutes or so before pulling the cork.  Their lighter weight coupled with the Gamay grape’s inherent high acidity gives them an enlivening perkiness when chilled.  A 2011 Beaujolais-Villages from Maison Louis Jadot ($11), or from Stéphane Aviron ($15) would be excellent choices.  Although some of the Beaujolais crus, such as the 2011 Fleurie from Château des Labourons ($18) or Jean-Paul Brun’s Domaine des Terres Dorée ($25), would also be delightful, I would save the bigger crus, such as Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent, for the fall because their structure can become too prominent and throw them out of balance when chilled.

Pinot Noir lacks the tannic structure of Cabernet Sauvignon, which means that lighter red Burgundies or other light bodied wines made from that grape are especially welcome when chilled because their inherent complexity still comes through.  Many red Burgundies with “lesser” pedigrees, such as Faiveley’s 2010 Mercurey ($25) or Maison Louis Latour’s 2012 Bourgogne Rouge Cuvée Latour  ($17) are invigorating after spending 30 minutes in an ice bucket.  Indeed, if you run across Bourgogne Rouge from 2009 from top producers, grab them because that vintage produced ripe, yet not tannic, wines perfect for chilling.  I can also recommend Erath’s 2011 Oregon Pinot Noir ($19), Toad Hollow’s 2011 Goldie’s Vineyard Pinot Noir ($20), Talbott’s 2011 Kali Hart bottling ($20), or Edna Valley Vineyard’s 2011 “Paragon” Pinot Noir ($20) because of their balance and delicacy.  And do what Oregonians have been advocating for years:  Drink them with grilled or poached salmon.

Italian Reds

Bardolino, a light fresh fruity wine from around Verona in northeastern Italy, has fallen out of favor as the public embraces bigger and bolder wines.  It’s exactly Bardolino’s light-on-the-palate character that makes it perfect for chilling and gulping with summer salads or light pasta dishes.   Bolla’s 2012 Bardolino ($8) is the place to start.

Piedmont, known for the regal Barolo and Barbaresco--neither of which is suitable for chilling because of their tannic structure--is also home to more obscure grapes and wines, Freisa and Grignolino, which are delightful chilled.  They convey red fruit and earth flavors coupled with enlivening and bright acidity. Try them with a take out pizza when you don’t want to cook.  Look for Giuseppe Mascarello’s 2009 Freisa ($22). Top Barolo producers, Pio Cesare and Prunotto, also make charming Grignolino ($17 and $11, respectively).  The grape is not limited to Piedmont.  Napa Valley’s famed Heitz Cellar, who makes the iconic Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, also makes a perfectly refreshing Grignolino ($20) that cuts summer’s humidity like a knife when chilled.

Chianti, or the less expensive IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) Tuscan blends with their quintessential Tuscan acidity, are the ideal wines for uncomplicated summer food and become even more energetic when chilled.  I have raved about Banfi’s red Centine (they also make a white and rosé under this name) because it delivers far more than its $11 price tag suggests.  The 2011 shines when chilled.  Querciabella’s 2011 Mongrana ($22) has a little more oomph without being heavy or tiring.  This is not the setting for the Riservas from Chianti or Chianti Classico or the pricey Super Tuscans.  

Even Zinfandel

When I was discussing this topic with friends and colleagues, Marguerite Thomas and Paul Lukacs, they suggested that Zinfandel might take a chill nicely.  At first I though they were teasing since they know my dislike of that varietal.  But they were right--after all, they are wine and food pairing experts.  Even though many Zins are high in alcohol, most are not particularly tannic.  Indeed, chilling actually makes the alcohol less apparent, allowing the bright fruitiness to shine.  Cakebread’s 2010 Zinfandel ($30) from the Red Hills appellation of Lake County is an excellent example.  Chilled, the bright briary red and black fruit notes bombard the palate without a hint of heat despite a stated 15.1% alcohol.  It’s a perfect choice for barbequed ribs.

Sometimes it pays to run contrary to conventional wisdom.

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If you have other ideas about chilling red wines, email me at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein