Best Serving Temperatures for Wine

A white wine glass swirling against a setting sun

White is cold and red is room temperature, right?

By Erin Henderson

I teach a lot of wine courses and lead a lot of tastings. And without fail, every session will elicit at least one question (which then generally dominoes into a succession of more questions) about wine temperature.

We’ve all heard the old adage that whites should be served cold, and reds room temperature. But that vague instruction usually results in near-freezing whites and insipidly warm reds. Unfortunately, extreme temperatures, on both ends of the scale, dull the flavours and nuance of the wines and highlight the sour character of acid, astringent notes of tannin and burning sensation of alcohol.

The officials over at the pedigreed Wine and Spirits Education Trust – a leading school for wine training – suggests sparkling and sweet wines to be served as low as 6°C and full-bodied reds to be served as high as 18°C. This, of course, is a range and speaks in generalities of wine styles.

Temperature chart for wines

But let me tell you something: in my 15-plus years as a professional sommelier, and the number of winemakers, writers, judges, and educators I’m pleased to associate with daily, never – and I mean never – have I seen someone whip out a thermometer and stick it in the glass to ensure the right serving temperature.

Like many things in life and culinary pursuits, quite a bit comes down to personal taste. I was at a dinner party the other day, a lovely outdoor gathering in unseasonably glorious 30-degree heat, where the hostess’s husband quite happily sipped on a glass of red – filled with ice. That ear piercing whistle you hear? It’s the sound of wine snobs everywhere shrieking in hysteria.

While I would never recommend filling your wine (white or red) with ice for the reasons I explained above (cold only inhibits flavour, leaving just the harsh structure of tannin, acid, and alcohol detectable) I also find that red wines, even the boldest of the lot, served at 18°C is far too warm for my tastes. I prefer my reds somewhere between 10-14°C and my whites somewhere between 6-10°C – though, again, I have never measured the temperature to be exactly sure where they add up.

wine bottles in a steel bucket in ice
How to Get Your Wine to the Right Temperature

Of course, the best way to ensure you’ve got a wine bottle at the exact temperature you want it (and not a decimal point more!) is to invest in a wine fridge that offers precision temperature control. After that, and I’m afraid you’re in guess-work territory. If you don’t mind playing fast and loose with your serving temps, I’ve got some handy ways you can efficiently chill your wine to a decent (enough) degree.

The One Hour/15 Minute Rule

This is the easiest and most streamlined for most people: put your white wines in the fridge one hour before serving, and your red wines in the fridge 15 minutes before serving. This also includes if you’ve already decanted your red wine, put the whole thing in there.

While I can’t say with certainty that one hour in the fridge will get your Pinot Grigio to the recommended 7.34°C and your Cabernet Sauvignon to the precise 17.86°C, it’s close enough for most palates. Of course, no one has you at gun point: want it colder, leave your bottle in for longer. Prefer it warmer, take it out sooner.

Ice Buckets

A bucket with half ice and half water will chill your white wine in 20 minutes.

There’s a lot of science around the melting rate of ice and air flow transfer between molecules (which is why submerging a wine only in ice is, ironically, slower) but really, all you need to know is that a proper sized bucket with water and ice (heck, I once used my five-year-old nephew’s Halloween candy bucket in a pinch) will get that sucker chilled down in the time it takes to take off your bra, wash your face, and put your hair in a pony.

The Ice Cube Controversy

I’m on record in many places saying this: if you are facing a wine emergency, you can use ice to chill your wine. (More shrieks of horror from the cheap seats.)

I know I am raising the ire of many winemakers here, so let me explain further:

If your glass of wine is too warm, simply add an ice cube, ideally a large, king cube, to the wine. Stir for 5 seconds, and remove the ice. This will allow your wine to chill to an acceptable temperature, but because of both the short amount of time and the ratio of liquid to ice, your wine will neither dilute from melted cubes, nor get too cold and risk losing flavour.

If you are currently the type of wine enthusiast who enjoys keeping ice in your glass of wine, such as my friend's husband, know that you are doing more harm than good to the final flavour and it’s likely you will find your wine tastes better slightly warmer and without the dilution. But if you really aren’t ready to part with ice, let me offer some easy alternatives to try:

How to Warm Up Wine

Alternatively, if you've been served a wine that is way too cold, placing it beside the radiator or giving it a quick nuke in the microwave is not best practice.

Try decanting it from the chilled bottle to allow it to warm up quicker. Or, if you are only having a glass, cup the bowl in your warm hands for a few minutes. The heat from your (hopefully) 98°F body, will warm up the glass a few degress in just a few minutes. (Which is also why I usually recommend holding a wine glass by the stem – but that's a story for another blog. Which, you can read here.)

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