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Red Wine: on the Rocks?

Beyond ‘Room Temperature’, Geek is increasingly being subjected to wines being served by restaurants at the wrong temperature—from way too cold to downright hot!

Like the rest of Michiganders, Wine Geek enjoyed a particularly lovely and warm summer this year. Not much to complain about with one exception: the warm temperatures sometimes migrated indoors—especially in some of our favorite restaurants that like to open their windows/garage doors to Mother Nature. And in these cases, our red wines were sometimes served too warm to fully enjoy.

Anyone with just a passing interest in wine knows that the temperature a wine is served at affects the enjoyment of it. And allowing a small range to factor in personal preferences (Geek like his Champagne very cold for instance), serving a wine at the correct temperature is vital to letting the wine show at its best—as in displaying all the aromas/flavors/nuances/complexity that a given wine may possess. And ‘showing its best’ is based on science, not preference.

Without getting too pedantic, note that white wines and red wines have different chemical compositions/structures which influence a drinker’s perception. Most notably, white wines have higher levels of acidity and typically higher levels of things like esters and terpenes; red wines have much higher levels of polyphenols (like tannins and anthocyanins) and frequently have higher alcohol levels too. This means—generally speaking—white wines need to be serve chilled and red wines (most) need to be served at ‘room temperature’.

Note that ‘room temperature’ is a rather misleading descriptor. Supposedly the term was first coined when the homes of wine drinkers in Europe had no central heat, and therefore were cooler than our modern standards of central heat and comfort. So ‘room temp’ means something more like 67 or 68 degrees than 72 degrees. And yes, 4 or 5 degrees can dramatically affect how a wine is perceived. The flip-side of this is good white wines are ‘cleaner’ and fresher than may have been the case for most wines produced 20, 40, 60 years ago, so no need to chill them to death to mask off flavors. So though Wine Geek is not the arbiter of taste, it is generally conceded that red wines should be served a bit cooler and white wines (most) should be served not too chilled. And therein lies the problem.

Back to our warm restaurant story above, this is frankly not relegated to summer only. Many, many restaurants store their white wines in the cooler right next to the beer. Beer is usually served pretty cold, and beer usually wins the thermostat wars. The good news is the white wine will warm up fairly quickly, so quickly remedied. Red wines however are usually served at the ambient temperature of the room, which again is not ideal for most red wines, so if it sits at your table for a while…it stays at the same (too warm) temperature. Worse—and this is shockingly common—lots of restaurants—even pretty good operators—store their red wines (at least the by-the-glass reds) on their back bar next to the cash register or next to the exhaust vent of their beer cooler—getting blasted by warm air, actually making the wines hot! One of our favorite, favorite places in the Motor City with a 100% quality mindset has this issue. Geek’s peeps have pointed this out to them, but they say ‘we have nowhere else to keep the wine’. So we drink cocktails while there.

Having a good wine program is more than picking good wines and selling them at a fair price. Having well-trained servers, using proper stemware, and serving wine at the right temperature are all part of the whole. Do it right, and you will be rewarded $$$ !

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