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Taking Wine's Temperature (August 14, 2003)

Georg Riedel, the Austrian crystal stemware designer, has convinced the wine world that the shape of the glass can alter your taste perception of the wine. To this end, he has created a wine glass for virtually every grape variety sculpted to deliver the intention of the winemaker.

But the shape of the wine glass is not the only factor that can change the way we react to wine.

Serving temperature is even more important. Let me illustrate with a story told to me by a Portuguese sommelier friend who used to work in a Toronto restaurant. He is a highly knowledgeable and accomplished wine professional who has worked in restaurants around the world.

A few years ago he applied for a sommelier position at the luxurious Hôtel de Crillon in Paris.

The maître d' told him to come back in a couple of hours after the lunch crowd had left. When he returned his prospective employer led him into the kitchen, sat him down at a table set with three glasses of red wine. He was asked to taste them blind and state where they came from, the vintage and the quality.

My friend is an accomplished taster who has participated in this kind of trial by wine on previous occasions. He did what wine tasters do – he studied the colour of each wine against a white background; he swirled, he sniffed, he rolled the wine around in his palate and spat into the plastic spittoon provided. Then he made his notes confident that he had at least determined the provenance of the wines – their grape varieties and regions, if not zeroing in on their actual vintages.

He handed his paper to the maître d'. He did not get the job.

The wine in the three glasses was the same – Château Pétrus 1982. The reason the sommelier did not recognize the fact was that the three glasses were at different serving temperatures – chilled, cellar temperature and room temperature.

(Why, you might well ask, did the hotel provide the world's most expensive red wine as the basis for this fiendish test? It appears a Saudi prince had had lunch in the dining room; he had ordered a bottle of Pétrus '82, consumed half of it and left the rest.)

The point is that the temperature of a wine not only changes the mouth feel but also alters the balance of its elements. Chilling a wine lowers the perception of residual sugar and brings the freshness (acidity) to the fore. That's why dessert wines should be served colder than dry white wines.

If you want to try an experiment that shows how chilling can radically alter the taste of a wine, take a bottle of Beaujolais (preferably a named village wine – Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Brouilly, etc. – that will have more extract than a simple Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages), pour half into a carafe. Leave the carafe on the dining room table at room temperature and refrigerate the corked bottle for an hour. Then taste the two wines side by side. I guarantee you won't recognize them as the same wine.

One of axioms of the wine world is that red wine should be served at room temperature. The concept is that the wine has been lying down in a cool cellar to ensure a very slow maturation. In order to release the bouquet and the flavour, a red wine has to warm up. Now, room temperature in North America is around 20–22° Celsius, which has nothing to do with the room temperature of a French château or an English country house, where the idea was first mooted.

When a wine warms up to room temperature and above, the alcohol begins to evaporate (since the boiling point of alcohol, 78° C, is much lower than that of water, 100° C). I prefer my reds served just above cellar temperature to allow them to warm up in the glass.

If a red wine gets too warm, it starts to lose its structure and becomes soupy. This happens a lot in restaurants where they display their bottles along the walls exposed to the ambient temperature of the room. It may look attractive, but it does nothing for the quality of the wine.

You can refresh an over-heated red wine by popping it into an ice bucket for ten minutes. There is no sacrilege involved in chilling red wine. The heavens will not part and Dionysus will not descent on a cloud and set about you with a vine stalk.

But he may just do so if you reach into your pocket and take out one of those unspeakable wine thermometers and start stirring your glass to take its temperature.

And you would deserve it!




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