We Brits do love our wine but why must we serve our whites too cold and our reds too warm?
Whatever the weather this August, and if our English summer is true to form it will probably be tipping down, we do ourselves a disservice in this country by drinking most of our wine at the wrong temperature. Although post-war Britain has been quick to adopt many of the benefits of Continental Europe, from lattés to lingerie, we still insist on serving our white wines too cold and our red wines too warm.
‘Gastropubs’ (formerly known as ‘pubs’) are partially responsible for this phenomenon as they are under enormous pressure to maximise their returns on their house wines. A typical mark-up on ‘by the glass’ wines in a pub or bistro is about 300%, so if a wine is selling for £12 a bottle the chances are its ‘cost in’ was around £4. With duty accounting for £1.81 of that and transport, labelling, bottling and marketing to be taken into account it doesn’t leave much of a budget for the actual wine. Little wonder therefore that they are often of an inferior quality. With white and rosé wines this can be masked to quite a high degree by over chilling, as the colder a wine is served the less well one is able to smell and taste it.
I think the problem with red wines being served too warm is really a complicated combination of modern living, ignorance and laziness. While still white wine should ideally be served between 8˚ and 14˚ (sweet and sparkling wines may fair well a fraction cooler) red wines should be served between 12˚ and 16˚. As a general rule of thumb lighter, fruitier red wines like Beaujolais or Saumur Champigny can be served at cooler temperatures than big, tannic red wines especially during the warmer summer months. Personally I much prefer wines warming up from cellar temperature (10˚- 15˚) rather than being served at ambient room temperature – which is nearly always too hot. ‘Room temperature’ for red wines is fine if you are talking about a draughty castle in Scotland but not if you are in a centrally-heated semi in Surbiton.
The problem is compounded by the fact that few of us (me included more’s the pity) actually have proper cellars at home these days so it is an up-hill battle to get them to the right temperature in the first place. There is a lot to be said for playing against tradition and decanting white wines from the fridge to warm them up and oxygenate them a little and plonking reds into an ice bucket (or a nice bucket) for a minute or too just to tauten them up a tad.
Is it acceptable to actually add ice to the wine itself? I would say officially ‘no’ but provided you don’t tell anyone else and it is off the record, then ‘yes’. Especially if you have just got in from a hard day at the office and the fridge is empty. I have often seen respected wine makers add an ice cube to a glass of wine and in these days of rising alcohol levels a little dilution is no bad thing.
We need to stop being so British and give our licensed victuallers free and frank feedback about the quality of their wines and the temperatures at which they are serving them only then can we hope to emancipate ourselves from a world of tooth shatteringly cold Pinot Grigio and blood-warm Cabernet Sauvignon!
(This article first appeared in Country Calling, 27/07/2011)