C O L U M N 14
COLD RED WINE AT
THE BLOCK PARTY.
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..."Why is that red wine in the fridge?" Wine Allergic Girlfriend asks me.
"Because it's chilled," I say, having no other answer at the moment. Serving red wine at room temperature is like serving white wine with fish; it's one of those little rules you learn about wine even if you have no interest in wine whatsoever. Every hobby or pursuit has these little rules—things you should and should not do in order to appreciate the pursuit—but with wine, these rules collect together to form the solid core of what we know as wine-snobbery. When you drink wine, you confront the expectations of what it means to drink wine: you should swirl the glass; you should smell the cork; you should not chill the red wine; you should not drink wine from a mug. The wine world is full of these little expectations, and this is why a lot of people disclaim wine before drinking it. "Oh, I don't know anything about wine," they say, worried they will screw up and somebody with a monocle will judge them.
The reason you don't normally chill red wine, according to Wine Bible author Karen MacNeill, is that at colder temperatures the tannins become more pronounced, adding an uncomfortable astringency to the taste. Similarly, if you warm a white wine up to room temperature you accentuate the alcohol, making the wine come off like your drunk brother-in-law: thick and slow with booze-breath. As MacNeill writes:
"The perception of alcohol, acidity, fruitiness, and balance are all influenced by a wine's temperature. Temperature, in fact, can make the difference between enthusiasm and apathy for the same wine."
This is a fact of chemistry: temperature affects taste. Add to this a common observation about wine: tannin-rich full body red wines taste better at room temperature. These two things lead to a rule of wine drinking: most red wines should not be chilled. This is fine. Like we said before, all pursuits have their little rules.
The problem, as I see it, is that in the case of wine the rules turn into an expectation. Expectations are weird things. They can be totally value free—a neutral belief that something will happen based on an observation of the past: I expect that the sun will rise tomorrow. But they can also be subjective containers of judgment totally divorced from reason or experience—a belief that something should happen based solely on the belief itself: I expect you to dress nicely and swirl the glass of wine before drinking from it. It's not so much that I expect red wine to be room temperature because it has been room temperature in the past or I have a working knowledge of chemistry; I expect red wine to be room temperature because that's how it should be.
As it turns out, however, certain red wines taste better when chilled. Not all red wines are the same, of course, and "[e]xtremely fruity, low-tannin red wines ... should be cooled almost as much as white wines so that their fruitiness is magnified" (MacNeill again). Until I read that, though, I had no idea why you would want to chill a red wine. Instead, I had an expectation about how red wine should be served; and I order the chilled red wine at the bar because it defies those expectations...