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White Wine: Too Darn Cold?

It's a question so obvious that no one thinks to ask it: Why do we chill white wine? Increasingly puzzled by this practice, Pete Wells investigates.

Wine doesn't scare me. Wine and I get along like bears and picnic baskets. What scares me is wine experts. I blame my grade-school teachers, with their tyrannical insistence that math problems had just one right answer. To this day I have trouble memorizing complex strings of digits, like my phone number. If I'm talking to wine experts and they use a phrase like "the three terrific years in the Rhône from 1998 to 2000," my skin itches and I start to sweat. I suppose I could fake it if numbers were the only weak spot, but they aren't. I'm not so good with names either. Try comparing notes with a wine expert when you can't remember a bottle's producer, winemaker or vintage.

I've made friends with one expert who pretends not to notice all that. He is Dan Philips, an Australian-wine importer and a contributing editor to F&W. One night I met Dan for dinner at a BYOB place in Queens, and we each brought an Alsace white. Dan's was a Tokay Pinot Gris from Domaine Weinbach. I know this because he reminded me of it later; I have no idea what I brought. The waitress gave us a corkscrew and glasses, but no ice bucket, so the wine got warmer and warmer as we ate. And—this was weird—better and better. So I asked the wine expert, "Why do we drink white wine cold?"

"That's a good question," Dan said. "I don't know."

"Really?" I said. This seemed like such a basic query that I couldn't believe somebody who made his living in wine wasn't able to answer. I couldn't have been more pleased if he'd handed me a hundred-dollar bill. At last I had achieved a kind of parity with someone who knows a lot about wine. It wasn't that I knew something he didn't know—that would be asking too much. No, it was enough that I didn't know something he didn't know either. From that moment on, The Question became a kind of protective device, something I could whip out when confronted by a wine expert the way hikers carry walking sticks for chance meetings with rattlesnakes.

The next time I saw Dan, he'd brought one of his favorite winemakers, Chris Ringland. Whenever I meet a winemaker, I usually say something like, "Have you ever tried making wine out of beer?" Usually the poor guy stares at me, then walks away shaking his head. This time, however, I was armed with The Question.

"Why do we drink white wine cold?" I asked Ringland. He was quiet for a minute and then said, "I don't know."

This was farther than I had gotten with any other winemaker, so I tried another question. I've never made wine but I once made ice cream. I mixed cream, eggs, sugar and vanilla, tasted it, and felt as ill as a six-year-old the day after Halloween. But when the ice cream finally came out of the freezer, it tasted perfect—what had been obnoxiously sweet was now just right. So I asked Ringland whether he took serving temperatures into account when he was making a white wine.

No, he answered. He just tried to make the best wine that he could.

This deepened the mystery. White wine isn't designed to taste best at any particular temperature, so saying you're meant to drink it cold makes as much sense as saying you're meant to eat lettuce with oil and vinegar.

Whenever I bump my head on the ceiling of my culinary knowledge, I turn to Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, which lays out the scientific basis for just about everything edible. This is what McGee has to say on The Question: "The colder a wine, the less tart, sweet and aromatic it seems." I read that sentence a second time, and then a third. The flavor of white wine comes primarily from just these three elements: acid and sugar, which you taste on your tongue, and aromatics, which have to evaporate before your nose can detect them. When you buy a bottle of wine, you're paying for flavor (and alcohol, of course). If chilling masks the main flavor-producing elements, then every time you chill white wine, you're throwing money away. Suddenly, I had visions of starting a consulting business that was sure to make me absurdly rich. For a modest fee I would pay a visit to your house and improve your white wine by taking it out of the refrigerator.

If you're not ready to write me a check for this unique service, consider this: I've now posed The Question to about two dozen experts, and the one point they all agree on is that most people drink reds too warm and whites too cold. "Especially in America, I keep asking for ice buckets when I get red wine, and I keep taking the bottle out of the bucket when I drink white wine," says Etienne Hugel, whose family has made acclaimed whites in Alsace for 13 generations. "Putting it in ice water takes away all the pleasure of good-quality white wines. It numbs the flavors." The U.S. obsession with 32 degrees Fahrenheit suggests to Hugel's Gallic imagination that perhaps the ice-making lobby is secretly running the country.

While I wouldn't rule that out, it's more likely that many Americans first encountered warm white wine the way I did—at parties, in plastic cups filled with the kind of Chardonnay that moves across the country in tanker trucks. This wine is a menace at any temperature; after sitting in a plastic cup for 10 minutes, it deserves to be thrown in jail. I suspect that this is why, when I ask many people The Question, they look at me like I ought to be kept away from sharp objects before saying, incredulously, "Have you ever tasted warm white wine?"

Anyone bearing the scars of an early bad-wine trauma is going to make it tough for sommeliers to pour wines at the temperatures the sommeliers themselves prefer. Juliette Pope, the beverage director at Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, gave me an answer to The Question that was quick and startling in its honesty: "Consumer expectation, first of all. Habit. Tradition. God knows why or how it started."

Then again there was a time when consumer expectation meant well-done steaks and boiled broccoli. I'd been drinking cool white wine for years, and now I was discovering that the better the wine was, the warmer I liked it—up to about 65 degrees or so. But I'm no expert, which is why I got so excited when I found Rick Lewis, who has operated the Madison Wine Shop in Madison, Connecticut, for 20 years. Lewis has been drinking whites and reds at room temperature since the early '90s, and the practice has brought him great happiness. Lewis told me he was still a warm-white-wine guy. "I rarely buy wine without tasting it, and over the years I began to realize that tasting wine cold is useless," Lewis said. "You don't get any flavor at all. Usually now I prefer whites at about 70 degrees and red wines at about the same temperature. I see no reason why they should be treated differently." Lewis is the only wine merchant I know who breaks with the old adage "buy warm, sell cold"—he sells warm, too. "I used to put our samples in a bucket of ice, and I observed that as the wine got colder and colder, I got less and less response from people," he explained. "Finally I said the hell with it. And I've never looked back."

Lewis is what statisticians call an outlier. Most of the wine experts I ambushed with The Question believe that, in general, most whites should be served cooler than most reds. But start talking about specific bottles and this rule breaks down quickly. "I'll take a Beaujolais Villages at 55 degrees and a Montrachet at 65 any day," said Shayn Bjornholm, wine director of the Seattle restaurant Canlis. Most of the experts were opposed to a one-temperature-fits-all approach to whites. Larry Stone, wine director at Rubicon restaurant in San Francisco and the man who makes Sirita wines, told me that "you're not going to hurt a Muscadet" by putting it on ice. But, he said, "if you take a Corton-Charlemagne and chill it all the way down, you're basically destroying it."

Clark Smith, who teaches winemaking in Napa Valley and makes WineSmith and CheapSkate wines, is rarely at a loss for words. But when I asked him The Question, he threw up his hands and reeled back, like an old gunslinger who'd just taken the bullet with his name on it. It was most gratifying. Then he said, "Well, let's think of what we use white wine for. We use it to refresh, first of all." Terry Theise, who imports German and Austrian wines, gave me a similar answer: "It's partly the function to which we put white wine. In particular crisp white wine is a water substitute, if you will, a thirst quencher."

This explanation would have satisfied me back before I'd felt the power of The Question. But now I was ready to take on even the meanest, baddest wine expert. Before long, whenever one of them gave me the Refreshing Response, I had a comeback: Do we drink whites cool because they're meant to be refreshing, or are they refreshing because we drink them cool?

I was feeling pretty full of myself when Jancis Robinson, author of The Oxford Companion to Wine, surprised me by turning The Question around. Robinson suggested that we would chill all wines if we could get away with it. "I would put it the other way: Why don't we drink red wines cool?" she said to me. "We like our drinks to be refreshing, so there's a natural tendency to drink all beverages cool. But serving red wine cool would accentuate the tannins, possibly to the point of discomfort."

At least two things happen when you drink white wine that make it feel refreshing. First, temperature sensors in your mouth tell you that you've drunk something chilly. Second, your tongue perceives sourness, which causes you to salivate, and that makes you want another sip. Whites generally contain more acid than reds, and my experts agreed that acidity is wrapped up in the answer to The Question; they just couldn't agree how. The majority opinion seemed to be that chilling white wine emphasizes the acidity—which we enjoy. "Acidity performs better with a little coolness," said Jean-Luc Le Dû, for several years the sommelier at Daniel in Manhattan and now the owner of a wine shop, Le Dû's.

Le Dû and the other experts were describing their own experiences, and I couldn't argue. But what about On Food and Cooking, which informed me that "the colder a wine, the less tart, sweet and aromatic it seems"? McGee's scientific explanation told me that chilling dampened everything, including acid. I had two puzzle pieces that seemed to come from different puzzles. So I asked someone who studies taste perception in wine.

Before she retired, Ann Noble was a sensory scientist in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis. Noble created the famous Aroma Wheel, which attempts to break down everything you might smell in a glass of wine, from strawberry jam to wet cardboard. When I asked her why we drink white wine cold, she reeled off a bunch of studies—intensity of menthol at varying temperatures, disproportionate effect of small increases in electric shocks—and then admitted that none of them was really relevant.

Then we talked about the experts' belief that chilling brought out the acidity in a wine. "If that's true, then perhaps sweetness and acidity have different psychophysical functions. That is, the perception of those two things is changing differently at different temperatures." According to that theory, Noble explained, chilling suppresses acidity less than it suppresses sweetness. "That is a possibility, but I haven't heard that explanation myself," she said. "I don't think I've ever seen a study on it. Now that you're asking me, it seems like an extremely interesting thing to look at. All we need is the research funds to do it."

I thanked Noble and told her I'd found our conversation thought-provoking. "You pose some interesting questions yourself," she replied.

Once you get to know them, wine experts really aren't scary at all.

Published October 2005
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