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Serving temperature matters (and I'm not just being fussy)
Wine geeks have a reputation for being fussy and pedantic. Visit a wine discussion forum on the internet and you may well find the participants agonizing over the temperature control on their wine cabinets and cellars -- should it be 55F, or is that just a little too cold? Perhaps 60F? No that's too hot, so maybe 58F is better. But how do I know how accurate my temperature control really is? Get a life.

But some of the myriad concerns of wine lovers really are justified. And one of the key issues in wine appreciation is one that is rarely discussed -- serving temperature. Several years ago I received an unusual Christmas gift: a dedicated wine thermometer, in a wooden display case, embossed on the inside with the ideal serving temperature for each style of French wine. How fussy, I thought. Since then I've changed my mind. I now think that serving temperature is one of the critical elements in appreciating a wine, and just as fine wines can be totally ruined by use of the wrong glasses serving wine at the wrong temperature can absolutely kill it.

Scientific research has shown that tatse buds function differently with changing temperature. For example, the perception of sweetness in a solution is strongly affected by the temperature of that solution. (It tastes sweeter as it warms up.) But we don't need hard data to convince us of this. Try the following experiment. Take an inexpensive oaked Australian Chardonnay and pour it into two half bottles. Leave one of these at room temperature, and chill the other down to fridge temperature. Then taste the two wines. The wine at room temperature may well taste a bit flabby, sweet and confected, but the chilled bottle is likely to be much more savoury, leaner and with more 'structure'. Try the same experiment with a sweet wine, and you'll probably find that the wine at room temperature tastes sweeter and less focused than the chilled version.

The conclusion? Chilling white wines generally makes them taste less sweet and more savoury, and generally makes them taste 'less' overall. In fact the worst white wine I ever had, a papaya wine in Kenya which had a delicate bouquet of feline urine, was almost palatable when served ice cold. You had to drink it quick, though, before it had a chance to warm up. On the other hand, chill a fine Burgundy or Alsace white too much, and you'll miss what the wine has to offer.

With red wines, a similar thing happens, but here it has more to do with tannins than sweetness. Whereas white wines get their structure from their acidity, reds rely on a combination of acidity and the bitter group of compounds known as tannins for their substance. If you chill a red wine, this exaggerates the tannins, gives the wine more structure, and makes it less expressive on the nose. Conversely, as a red warms up, the tannins become less apparent and the wine becomes more volatile. While intuitively you'd think that it's therefore a good idea to warm reds up to make them more expressive on the nose, what actually happens is that as a red is overheated, the nose loses its focus: there's quite a narrow window of temperatures where a wine shows well, and it's not a good idea to stray outside this. One non-wine geek friend of mine has a dreadful habit of opening red wines a couple of hours early and sticking them on top of the oven. By the time the wine is poured, it's lukewarm; almost undrinkably so. Don't do it!

Our home has an ageing central heating system, and on a cold winter's evening, I often find red wines at room temperature are just too cold to be enjoyable. They are muted on the nose and sternly structured. In the summer, however, I'll often pop reds in the fridge for 20 minutes before opening them, as at a room temperature of 25C-plus they can be unfocused and blowsy. And some light reds, such as those from Beaujolais or the Loire, often benefit from being chilled right down much as you might do with a white wine.

So, you've probably gathered by now that I'm fully convinced that serving temperature has a startling effect on the taste of a wine. While you don't have to get it accurate within a fraction of a degree, it's worth paying attention to. In general, watch out for serving red wines too warm; it's much easier to warm a wine up in the glass than it is to cool it down again, so err on the side of too cool. And don't serve those reds too warm!

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