Red Wine, Cold?

Stick that bottle in the fridge.

It appears the rosé backlash has finally begun. New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov recently confessed to rosé boredom in his blog, and Bloomberg’s John Mariani gently pointed out that rosés, though certainly enjoyable, are still just simple, seasonal wines.

My problem with the rosé fad is that it has helped push prices for some of the better ones—Domaine Tempier, Domaine Ott—into the sillysphere (sorry, but I don’t spend $40 on a plate of pasta, and I am not laying out $30 for a bottle of rosé). More regrettably, it has also blinded consumers to what may be the best summer wines of all: chilled reds. Admittedly, the idea of plunging a bottle of red wine into an ice bucket, or tossing it into the refrigerator, is counterintuitive and may even strike some people as vaguely sacrilegious: We generally think of red wines as beverages that exist to warm us up on winter nights, not cool us off on summer days. In fact, though, a chilled red offers all the thirst-quenching qualities of a good rosé and a lot more substance. It will also pair better with a cheeseburger, which is no minor consideration this time of year.

Like many Americans, I first encountered this seemingly heretical practice in France. As soon as the temperatures in Paris turn balmy, the bistros, brasseries, and cafes start putting a little chill into the carafes of vin rouge, at which point the wines assume a dual purpose: They complement your food and they refresh you. Of course, the weather in northern Europe, even in summer, is notoriously fickle, and should the mercury suddenly dip, all those pleasantly cold reds can require some emergency thawing. I was in Paris in late June and had a quick lunch one afternoon at Brasserie Lipp, a famous Left Bank restaurant. With my food, I ordered a glass of Juliénas, a cru Beaujolais, and because it was a warm day, the wine came lightly chilled, which was just how I wanted it. The next day, I found myself in the same neighborhood, starved for dinner and caught in a cold November-like downpour. I returned to Lipp and once again ordered the Juliénas, which now arrived unchilled and threw a warm liquid blanket over my bones. OK, it was a small detail, but I was impressed.

Lighter, softer reds—the kind that are preferable in summer anyway—generally fare better in the sub-zero than richer, denser ones. In France, wines from Beaujolais and the Loire Valley are the ones most often iced down. The cooler temperatures give them a restorative effect, but at little cost to their youthful fruitiness and acidic bite. The problem with chilling heavier, more structured wines is that it often makes the tannins more pronounced. True, it can also mask the alcohol just a bit, which is no bad thing in this era of Smirnoff-like Shirazes and Zinfandels, but along with the reduced heat, you might well suffer momentary lockjaw on account of the tannins. Even so, when I was in France’s Rhone Valley during an epic heat wave several years ago, the Saint-Josephs I ordered (Saint-Josephs are wines from the northern Rhone composed either entirely or principally of Syrah) were all served chilled—and the added astringency was, I had to admit, a small price to pay for the refreshment.

Chilling wines does not mean freezing them. The ideal serving temperature is somewhere between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit—which, as it happens, is the ideal storage temperature for wines (both reds and whites). Fifteen minutes in an ice bucket, or 15 to 30 minutes in the fridge, is usually all it takes to get a red wine to the optimal temperature and to put a strangely attractive sheen of condensation on the bottle. Anything longer is going to mute the fruit and accentuate the structure. The goal is to cool the wine down just enough to make it revitalizing, not to turn it into sludge.

Being a slavish follower of French custom, I stick with Beaujolais and the Loire when I feel like making it a cold one. Loire reds include Chinons, Bourgueils, Saumur-Champignys, and red Sancerres. There are, of course, differences within these categories. Some Chinons, for instance, boast lots of heft and aging potential, while others are lighter and more ephemeral; in general, it is the latter type that is best served chilled. Charles Joguet’s basic Chinon, the Cuvée Terroir, is an excellent candidate for the fridge; Joguet’s Clos de la Dioterie, by contrast, really needs to be put in the cellar, not wedged between a milk carton and a Coke bottle. Likewise, I think a Moulin-à-Vent from a good producer and a stellar vintage (Moulin-à-Vent is considered the most serious and long-lasting of all Beaujolais) deserves better than to be treated as a summertime quaffer. When I want a chilled Beaujolais, it’s usually Domaine Dupeuble; the Dupeuble is classified as a generic Beaujolais, the lowest of the low, but it is a wine that consistently exceeds its modest pedigree. But these are just personal preferences, and arguably also hair-splitting choices; many oenophiles make no such distinctions and happily chill down all sorts of Loire reds and Beaujolaises.

As for specific recommendations (apart from the Dupeuble and Joguet’s Cuvée Terroir), many of the better wines from the Loire and Beaujolais are made in relatively puny quantities and often have fairly limited distribution here. The sagest buying advice I can give is to look for wines from two importers in particular: Kermit Lynch and Louis/Dressner. Lynch brings in both the Dupeuble and the Joguet, as well as other choice names from Beaujolais and the Loire; Louis/Dressner has the finest Loire portfolio of any U.S. importer and also represents some excellent Beaujolais producers. In addition to being seriously good, these wines also generally offer great value.

Regardless of the season, red wines are often drunk too warm and white wines are usually drunk too cold. A red delivered to the table at room temperature—70 degrees or above—will seem alcoholic and flabby; the warmth saps the wine of its vigor. Conversely, serving white wines on the frigid side—say, below 50 or 55 degrees—tends to suppress their aromas and flavors. That’s not a problem if the wine is rotgut; it’s probably even helpful. But if the wine is a quality one, leaving it on ice or in the fridge too long is self-defeating. True, it is easy to get carried away with these concerns, and if I ever saw someone dip a thermometer into a glass of Viognier, I’d certainly be tempted to go over and break it. On the other hand, a little practical knowledge in the pursuit of pleasure is no bad thing.