I have drunk enough 80-degree red wines in overheated New York apartments and enough ice cold, headache-inducing whites to know how misguided people can be about wine temperatures.
The most common fallacies are that red wines should be served at room temperature and white wines stuck in an ice bucket for an hour. Wines at those extremes will be robbed of their flavor and nuance. Like Goldilocks's porridge, wines should be served at an optimal temperature.
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Ever since wine making began about 7,000 years ago, we have looked for ways to prolong its flavor and soundness. The nomadic Israelites carried their un-aged wine across the desert in animal skins. Ancient Mediterraneans aged their wines in thick pottery jugs called amphoras by the Greeks, stored at constant temperatures in cool underground stone cellars.
That basic principal still applies today, says Bernard Erpicum, manager and sommelier at Public House in Las Vegas.
"A wine cellar in Paris, London or Brussels is usually located in the basement and year-round remains at an ideal temperature of about 55, perfect for proper aging," he said. "Every 10 degrees over that will double the aging process, without the benefit of slow, proper aging. All finesse will disappear."
Red wines age faster at higher temperatures but may develop chemical compounds that give them flabby, cooked or jam-like flavors. White wines near freezing develop high deposits of white tartrates, harmless and tasteless though wholly unappealing in a wine bottle.
Public House wines are stored in a temperature-controlled glass wine cellar and bottles brought upstairs to the dining room as they are ordered. Pinot Noir is served at 58 to 60 degrees; Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot at 65 degrees; an oaky California Chablis or Chardonnay will be chilled in an ice bucket to 50; a white wine with less oak, closer to 45 degrees. Champagne and sparkling wine will be poured at 40 degrees.
Even among connoisseurs, personal tastes may vary widely: The late Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild preferred his Sauternes with ice crystals in the bottle, and for some, an icy rose can be just the ticket at the beach in St. Tropez or East Hampton.
But well-aged red and white wines need a good deal more care, something to keep in mind if you're bidding on rare wines at auction.
"The best case scenario for wines kept in pristine conditions is consignments directly from the chateau or winery and have never budged from their temperature-controlled climate," says Peter Meltzer, author of "Keys to the Cellar: Strategies and Secrets of Wine Collecting."
The next best source is sellers who purchased wines as futures or immediately upon release, and kept them in temperature controlled or professional wine storage, he says.
The Wine Cellarage, founded by former Wall Street banker Lars Neubohn, will transport wines to its 22,000-square-foot- facility in the Bronx, New York from anywhere in the U.S., for $30 to $100 a case, depending on distance and quantity.
Upscale restaurants usually have some kind of refrigerated wine units, often with hundreds of bottles arrayed.
At Benoit Bistro in New York, sommelier Andre Compeyre keeps his cellar's red wines at 62 degrees. "It's not too cold and not too warm," he says, "so when I bring a bottle to the table it is ready to drink right away." He also has two refrigerators at the bar for wines by the glass.
Still, many Americans complain their white wines are too warm. "Unfortunately some guests want their white wine ice-cold. I feel more comfortable with whites at 50 degrees, although champagne is best at 40."
If a restaurant serves its red wine too warm, it is often a telltale sign of negligence and improper storage. If so, ask the captain or waiter to put the bottle in an ice bucket for five minutes.
If your bottle of white wine comes to your table in a dripping ice bucket, that means it's been sitting in ice too long and will be bone-chillingly cold, so have your sommelier remove it. The ideal time for wine to chill in ice is about 10 minutes, something to bear in mind if you don't drink fast.
The cost of converting your own cellar can range from nominal to extravagant. In my house, the cellar's natural temperature never gets above 75 degrees in summer or below 55 in winter, which is fine for most bottles.
I keep my expensive, long-aging wines in a refrigerated 50- bottle unit.
For an apartment unit that will fit into a closet, you can easily find a 28-bottle thermoelectric chrome and glass unit for under $300 by Wine Enthusiast. Or for $4,700 you can install a freestanding EuroCave INOA Wine Cellar Conditioner to keep any room you like at 50 degrees and at the ideal humidity for a wine.