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The Chill: When Is Wine Too Cold?

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In the wake of the Twitter response to yesterday's post on "The Pour: Glass Half Empty or Half Full?" (in other words, when should waiters refill or wait to refill your wine glass?), I thought I'd post on another issue that wine lovers often face in restaurants: Wine so chilled that its aromas and flavors are unable to express themselves.

Like cold, tasteless extra-virgin olive oil in dipping bowls and ubiquitous, however superfluous, freshly cracked pepper, white and sparkling wine on ice is a staple of the modern-day restaurant business in our country.

The American culinary legacy of the nineteenth century was built on the advent of refrigeration. Temperature-controlled train cars made it possible to sell Florida oranges in New York and Texas rib eyes in Chicago, and to this day, our obsessions with air-conditioning and frozen foods continue to define our gastronomic ethos. (Remember those industrial-size freezers our grandparents filled with frozen orange-juice concentrate in the case of a nuclear fallout?)

Especially in a state like ours, where temperature control makes it possible to transport and enjoy fine wines during oppressively hot summer months, refrigeration is key to our vinous pleasure.

But can wine be too cold? Unfortunately, in restaurants today, excessive chilling of white and sparkling wines is pervasive.

While there are certain red wines that are traditionally served chilled, most red wines should be served at cellar temperature (i.e., 55°-56° F.). White wines are a different story. At our house we like to serve white wine at cellar temperature, but wine aficionados' positions on this subject can differ. (Here are some excellent rules of thumb for wine-service temperatures.)

But when a waiter insists on putting a bottle of white or sparkling white wine on ice, I never hesitate to request -- politely -- that she/he simply leave the bottle in the middle of the table.

An overly chilled bottle will mute the wine's aromas and flavors. And today, most wine is stored at excessively cold temperatures anyway.

When you consider that there are approximately six glasses of wine in a 750-milliliter bottle and that your average party of four will probably consume its first bottle of white wine between the service of the appetizer and the first course, it is best -- in my view -- to let the wine's temperature rise slightly and then, in case it's really become too warm (unlikely in most scenarios), ask politely for an ice bucket so that the wine can be chilled again.

I guarantee that in more cases than not, you will not need the wine to be re-chilled. And I bet that you will enjoy it a lot more.

On an unrelated note, look for the excellent oxidative whites and rosés of López de Heredia (in the photo above) at Spec's and the Houston Wine Merchant.


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