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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Should red wines be served cool?

By Eric Asimov

Wine is a joyous, never-ending education, as I relearn every month in Wine School. Even so, the lessons were humbling to me over the past few weeks as we examined how serving temperature affects red wines.

I had suggested three bottles that I thought would all benefit from a healthy chill. The experience was not what I expected.

Regular Wine School readers are all too familiar with my periodic reminder that most red wines are served too warm, along with my suggestion that, when planning to drink a red, the bottle should be refrigerated for 20 to 30 minutes or so before opening.

I continue to stand by that good advice. But as this lesson shows, it turns out that the chill affects wines in more nuanced ways than my somewhat simple admonitions would have suggested.

As I do every month, I proposed three bottles. They were: Broc Cellars North Coast Love Red 2021, Jean-Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorées Morgon 2020 and COS Terre Siciliane Frappato 2021.

The usual procedure is for participants to drink the wines in a relaxed setting, with food and family or friends, paying attention to the wine and their reactions to it without being obsessive about describing aromas and flavors. Then we reconvene at the end of the month to discuss the experience, and to pick the next subject.

In this instance, the instructions were slightly more complicated. I asked readers to try the chilled wines just out of the fridge, then over the course of a meal (I had recommended taking them out 20 minutes before eating) and, finally, at room temperature. The idea was to observe how the wine evolved depending on its temperature.

I expected that these wines would behave in roughly similar ways. Straight out of the fridge they each would be cold and refreshing but without much character. Cold kills nuance. Serving wine ice-cold will hide flaws in a bad bottle but also conceal any distinctive, winning qualities in a good one.

After 20 or 30 minutes, I imagined the wines would become more accessible — refreshing in hot weather and starting to show their stuff. They would continue to improve throughout the meal until they began to approach room temperature, at which point the wines would become less refreshing, less lively and perhaps fall flat.

Straight out of the refrigerator, the three wines were as expected: Frigid and flavorless. The only impression I had of these different bottles was the bracing, sluicing action of gulping a cold liquid. Drinking a good bottle that cold is pointless, whether red or white.

After 20 to 30 minutes outside the fridge, which had been my recommendation for when to begin drinking, the wines were still much too cold, as several readers noted.

“Twenty minutes might not be enough,” said Sherlock Lab of New York. “At least 45 to 55 minutes for these red wines to reach 55 degrees Fahrenheit. I take out white wines 60 minutes before.”

Even so, one bottle, the Broc Love Red, was somewhat enjoyable, its flavors beginning to spread through the mouth. The other two were not accessible. The COS was simply reticent, and the Brun Morgon was astringent, actually unpleasant.

Why was the Love Red different? It was a question of the winemaker’s intent. Broc Cellar’s Love wines are modestly priced, easygoing bottles meant for early consumption. They are not intended to be aged for years, simply to be opened and enjoyed. Marketers would call them pop ’n’ pour bottles.

This intention partly determines how the wine is made. Chris Brockway, Broc’s proprietor, buys grapes from all over California, many of them obscure ones like valdiguié from old vineyards. The ’21 Love Red is a blend of 51% carignan, 25% syrah and 12% valdiguié, along with smaller amounts of mourvèdre, zinfandel, petite sirah and grenache.

The grapes were fermented separately, then blended. The carignan and grenache underwent carbonic fermentation, a method popular in Beaujolais and among natural wine producers around the world. It’s often used to produce fruity, fragrant, easily enjoyable bottles that would fall under the category of carefree thirst quenchers.

Indeed, as the wine warmed to what I considered lightly chilled, it grew more delicious. The flavors were of tart fruit and herbs, maybe a bit of anise, with a lingering bitterness that refreshed and cleaned the mouth.

Broc, like each of these producers, relies on ambient yeasts for fermentation and does not manipulate the wines or add anything except, maybe, a small amount of sulfur dioxide, a stabilizer and antioxidant.

Unlike the Broc, the other two bottles were not necessarily intended for immediate consumption. Yes, they are generally enjoyable young. But each of them possess the ability to age and improve for at least a few years.

They weren’t tannic, like young Bordeaux, Barolo or Burgundy, which are often made for the long haul, aging and improving for 20 years or more. But they had enough tannins that anything more than a light chill emphasized the astringency and effectively closed the wines down.

Paradoxically, the Brun Morgon, though a Beaujolais, was not made with carbonic or semicarbonic maceration. Jean-Paul Brun, the proprietor, is part of a small but growing group of producers in Beaujolais who believe the character of the vineyard is better expressed through a conventional fermentation, which in Beaujolais is often referred to as Burgundian style.

In addition, Brun allows the grapes, 100% gamay, to macerate with the skins for four to six weeks, giving the wine some structure before aging it in concrete vats or oak barrels. The Morgon, reticent after a half-hour out of the fridge, was much better with just the slightest chill, bright, lively and floral. It was very gently tannic, but that was enough for the wine, colder than a slight chill, to be adversely affected.

Likewise, the intention behind the COS frappato, from the Vittoria region of Sicily, was more about conveying the character of the vineyard rather than making a simple thirst quencher. The wine buzzed with vibrant, sweet-and-bitter red fruit and earthy undertones with just a mild chill. Any colder, and the wine seemed simplified, just structured enough not to be enjoyable.

A delicious thirst quencher like the Broc is more flexible in terms of serving temperature than even modestly structured reds like the other two bottles, to say nothing of more age-worthy wines. It requires a little more knowledge of particular bottles to determine which reds can withstand cooler temperatures.

It’s a reminder that wine resists simplification. It’s a subject full of gray areas, subtleties and slight differences, which can be irritating to people who crave straightforward, easy solutions.

I could see this dynamic in several of the comments from readers. VSB of San Francisco said the Broc was at its best an hour out of the fridge. But for Dan Barron of New York, who drank a Lambrusco, 50 minutes out of the fridge left the wine feeling too warm.

One reader, Robert of Chicago, proposed the 20-minute rule: “Chill reds 20 minutes in fridge before opening. Take whites out of fridge 20 minutes before opening.”

I’m not sure, after my experience, that sort of one-size-fits-all approach will work. As Euphemia Thompson of North Castle, New York, pointed out, “Its success rides on how cold your fridge is.”

Several readers proposed putting ice cubes in wine. Though some respected wine experts have endorsed this approach, I’m not a fan as the ice melts and dilutes the wine. On the other hand, I’m not a fan of ice cubes in anything.

Better the refrigerator. Just don’t leave it in there too long. Or at least I wouldn’t. We all have different priorities. If cold red is yours, by all means stick it in the fridge for hours or add those ice cubes. People, like bottles, each have their perfect temperatures.

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