Why Are White Wines Served Cold and Red Wines Warm?

a Series of wine glasses with different coloured wines scatter across a table

There is a reason.

By Erin Henderson

One of my wine students asked me why whites wines are served cold and red wines served warm.

It’s a great question, one of the more obvious inquiries that likely go unanswered, as everyone just takes it as law and then we go about our day, and our wine drinking, without questioning this authority.

Of course, this has led to wild exaggerations based in misunderstanding: white wines served ice cold, red wines served nearly bath-water warm.

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So why don’t we just serve all wines the same temperature, as we do other drinks? Coffee and tea are served hot. Sodas and juices are served cold. Why futz around with wine?

There is a method to this madness.

Temperature affects, for better or worse, the aromas and flavours of a wine. Cold temperatures will diminish those notes, emphasizing the wine’s acidic and tannic structure. Heat will promote the wine’s alcohol, leaving it tasting lifeless and dull, and to me, a little sour with booze – what I call the “cheap wine” smell, no matter the price tag of the bottle.

You may also like: What’s the Difference Between Acid and Tannin?

White wines and red wines of all grapes and styles each have “official” temperature recommendations. Recommendations I largely ignore, save for the overarching characteristics of light bodied and full bodied. For me, life’s too short to delay drinking any longer than necessary whilst waiting for the thermometer to hit the exact number. No, a ballpark temperature is just fine for this heretic sommelier.

Despite my wonton wine ways, there are general guidelines I happily follow.

Numerous bottles in a large bucket filled with ice

Aromatic Wines

Wines redolent with fruit, floral and spicy notes such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc – or even very sweet dessert wines like Icewine benefit from the cold, since they have the aromas and flavours to handle the cooler temperatures.

Think about a bowl of ice cream. Delightfully sweet and refreshing when fresh from the freezer, but insipid when left out to melt into a lukewarm puddle of sugar.

Submerging the bottle in a 50/50 mix of ice and water for a good 30 minutes will get the wine where you want it to go.

Fruit Forward Reds

Think Gamay, Pinot Noir, young Valpolicella. They have nearly imperceptible tannins, in many cases, and are often described as juicy and fresh, thanks to the lively acidity. While these wines won’t be served as cold as the aforementioned Sauv Blanc, they do benefit from a 10-minute chill in an ice bucket, to help promote those red fruit flavours.

Rich Whites

A full bodied, oaked Chardonnay chilled within an inch of its life will render the buttery, creamy, poached fruit flavours flat and tasteless. Which might serve you well if you are an ABCer. However, Chards, creamy Chenin Blanc, rich Viognier and even skin-contact white wine (aka orange wine), will be so much more pleasing if served cool, not cold. A 30-minute cool down in the fridge should do it.

Full Bodied, Powerful Reds

Contrary to popular belief, room temperature is not the way to go for these heavy weights. The high tannin in wines like Barolo, Aglianico, or Syrah, lose their astringent, bitter quality and appear softer when given 15 minutes in the fridge. To help them open up more, I like to decant them at least an hour before serving, leaving it on the dining room table (ideally away from the excessive heat of the kitchen), and place the whole decanter in the fridge for the 15 minutes before serving to cool it off.

Up next: Sommeliers’ Secrets to Chilling Wine – Fast.

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