At long last, the desert’s al fresco season has arrived.
What better way is there to end an exhausting day of NASCAR-style evasive driving down Highway 111 than by relaxing on your favorite restaurant patio? This is where you’ll find me any given early evening. I’ll be pretty easy to spot: Just look for the gal sipping a full-bodied red with an ice cube floating in it.
Say what?! Ice in red wine? That’s right; you heard me. Before you clutch your pearls and recoil in horror, allow me to demystify this greatest of all wine crimes.
Several years back, I was sitting in a restaurant and having lunch with a notable winemaker. In the middle of a sentence, he casually picked up his fork, fished out an ice cube from his water glass, and plinked it into his glass of red wine. The look on my face must have resembled that of a child who just found out there was no Santa. What did he just do?! Is this OK?! Will we be asked to leave and dare not show our faces in here again?!
He simply smiled at me and said: “I don’t like warm wine.”
It was a revelation. As a sommelier, I had always known that it was perfectly acceptable to chill down a bottle of red, and I never flinched from asking for an ice bucket regardless of the reaction from the server. But if this guy—respected and revered in his position in the wine world—felt no shame about a cube or two floating in his cabernet, then who am I to say otherwise?
I think it’s safe to say we’ve all been there—sitting in a bar or restaurant, ordering a glass of wine, and watching the bartender grab the bottle sitting on the counter next to the steaming espresso machine. You know that you’re about to endure a wine that’s an ambient 80 degrees (or higher if it’s in August). Let me assure you—this is not what “room temperature” was ever supposed to mean. Once upon a time, in a land far, far, away, “room temperature” was actually referred to as “cellar temperature,” and when a bottle of wine was desired to accompany the evening meal, one had to venture into the deep, dark, cold subterranean level of the castle where temperatures would hover around 50 degrees. Those are not exactly the same conditions as my hall closet, where some of my wine lives. But then again, I don’t have a castle—or a subterranean level, for that matter.
The truth is, we Americans notoriously drink our white wine too cold, and our red wine too warm. Living in the desert where temperatures often hover between 100 degrees and the blazing inferno that is hell, the “too cold” part is almost forgivable. I’ve long said that I’d rather have my wines too cold than too warm, as it’s much easier, certainly ’round these parts, to go up in temperature than down. That said, there should only be a 10-degree difference between white wine and red wine: Your whites should be between 50 and 55 degrees (rosé and Champagne are a couple of exceptions), while the reds should be around 65 degrees.
I know this may come as a shock to some people who hold tight to the “room temperature” concept as gospel and shudder at the very idea of plinking a cube into their wine. I honestly think folks are so afraid of looking like a wine novice—knowing that putting ice in your wine is considered very déclassé—that they’ve convinced themselves that drinking warm wine is OK. The fact is, when a wine is too warm, every flaw is exacerbated. The wine begins to live under a microscope, and each sip can be a painful reminder of a bad year, an unskilled winemaker, or just cheap crap. (If you’ve ever ordered a nondescript “house wine,” then you know exactly what I’m talking about.) In this case, an ice cube or two are your best friend, because when a wine is too cold, the flavors are muted, and the aromas are all but silenced. This is not necessarily a bad thing when the wine is marginally palatable. Conversely, if you’ve ever had a white wine that didn’t taste like much initially, only to have it develop into a delicious and delightful explosion of aromas, it probably just needed to warm up a bit.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you put ice in a glass of ’82 Lafite or a Grand Cru Montrachet. That would be a crime punishable by terminal sobriety. But if you’re imbibing benchmark, world-class wines, they’d damn well better be served at a proper temperature. Furthermore, any restaurant worth its salt is going to make sure the wines being presented are stored correctly at the ideal temperature—or at least pretty close to it.
If you get anything out of this article, let it be this: If you come face-to-face with a lukewarm rose, a tepid sauvignon blanc or a downright-sweltering malbec, don’t hesitate to reach for the ice. Is it going to water the wine down? Oh, probably. Will it interfere with the wine’s texture, aromas and delicate nuances? Sure it is. My point: That might not be such a terrible thing. Yes, manipulating the temperature of the bottle is most certainly the preferable method, but we don’t always have that option.
If you need further validation, even the great, venerable British wine-writing legend Jancis Robinson said she has been known to pop a few ice cubes into her glass from time to time—because no one should drink warm wine.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she’s not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.