Richard Ballantyne MW, 14th October 2018
You might be right in thinking that red wines are best when served at room temperature, but there are some which can take a little cooling, and there are some which are actually improved when they are served this way.
Most red wines have tannins. These are the compounds which come from the grape skins and are extracted during the fermentation and maceration which turns grape juice and skins into wine. These tannins are what gives a red wine its chalky texture in the mouth and contribute to its bitterness. In a young wine these flavours and textures are more pronounced, but over time they soften, while also revealing the subtle nuances and complexity in the aged wine. However, when a red wine is chilled, the bitterness of the wine is amplified on your palate, making it more astringent. In most cases you would seek to avoid this bitterness, but when you have a young red wine that is low in tannin, together with crisp acidity, there is a good chance that it will not be adversely affected by cooling, and in some instances increase the enjoyment.
Just to be clear, there are no reds which you would serve ‘ice bucket’ cold, as there is another factor to consider. At temperatures below 10C your palate becomes less sensitive to the flavours and textures. What we recommend is to serve these styles of wines at around 13C, or roughly an hour in the fridge, just enough so the coolness refreshes rather than numbs the palate.
A great rule to start with is to avoid cooling any red that has been aged in oak. These wines are designed to be drunk at room temperature, and the extra tannins that come from the oak would outweigh any cooling benefit.
Another good rule to work by is to look for certain grape varieties which are generally speaking low in tannin and high in acidity. The first one that springs to mind is Gamay. This variety has its homeland in the Beaujolais region of Burgundy. Although good Beaujolais has the capacity to age very well, in particular, what we call ‘Cru’ Beaujolais (those which have a village name attached to the wine such as; Moulin a Vent, Fleurie, Morgon, St Amour and 6 other villages), it is a wine that can be appreciated young. When choosing a wine to chill, look for a young, fresh Beaujolais or Beaujolais Villages.
Cabernet Franc, when it is grown in the Loire region of Northern France is also another good variety to chill, but not all of them. A young, unoaked Saumur or Saumur Champigny is great when chilled, emphasising the crisp fruit and bright acidity. Young Chinon and Bourgueil can also be served cool, but not the best examples which are often oak aged, and invariably richer in tannins.
Pinot Noir is often thought of as being a being a wine to chill, but this where you must use caution to choose the right wine, as any ambitious Burgundy will have its subtleties destroyed by being too cool. Instead look for Burgundies at the basic level, those which just say ‘Bourgogne’ or Bourgogne Pinot Noir’ on the label. Pinot Noirs from New Zealand are quite good to chill, in particular those from Marlborough where the brightest and freshest wines come from. Again, avoiding those which have been oaked.
Italy is great place to look for reds to chill, and there are many styles of wines which are designed this way. The reds from around Lake Garda such as Bardolino and slightly further to the east, Valpolicella, are enjoyed this way, but always make sure that they are the young fresh styles, not, in the case of the latter, Superiore or Ripasso which are more serious styles for ageing. In Piedmont the wine made from Grignolino which is very light coloured, sappy wine which is best cold, and also some styles of Freisa, which can be slightly sparkling. The most famous, however, is Brachetto d’Acqui, which is made semi-sparkling and only partially fermented so it’s low in alcohol (around 5.5%) and sweet. Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna is also a sparkling red but less sweet, and is great alternative to Prosecco. The best examples of Lambrusco are delicious and traditionally served with charcuterie (antipasti) in the enotecas and trattorias of Bologna, Modena and Venice.
This is not an exhaustive list of wines, just remember the rules of seeking out young, unoaked wines, that are low in tannins and have crisp acidity and there is not much else that can go wrong. The fun is in the experimenting, and discovering for yourself the perfect temperature that suits your palate.