Not all red wines are created equal, and room temperature is relative. Deciding whether to chill a particular red wine depends on several factors. Understanding these factors, and a little about red wine, allows you to decide with confidence exactly when chilling red wine is acceptable and which red wines to chill.
Cellar to Breakfast Nook
The concept of optimal temperatures for serving red wine evolved out of an Old World tradition of storing wines in cellars. Such cellars, in the European sense, correspond to the basement of an American house. The foundation and walls of Old World homes are commonly stone, which traps cold and keeps the space consistently cool year-round, and there is little to no light. Room temperature really means cellar temperature, on average about 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler. Considering most rooms in modern houses are warmer than this, serving a red wine at a cooler cellar temperature might entail chilling the wine.
Location, Location, Location
If you live in a warmer climate, at or around the equator, or if you plan to serve red wine during unseasonably warm weather, chilling it might be the best way to enhance its inherent flavor profile. Cabernet Sauvignon in the 70-degree range unleashes luscious, poignant fruit and brightness. In warmer climates, during summer and in spaces that aren't air-conditioned, a Cabernet sitting out in a wine rack potentially becomes too warm and benefits from a little chilling. The same is true for Beaujolais and Bardolinos, two light red wines that taste best at roughly 56 F to 60 F.
Red Wines to Chill
Chilling red wines mutes their aromas and fruit flavors and brings out their tartness, so opt for reds that are young, less than 12 percent alcohol and have spent little or no time aging in wood. Chilling won't destroy the quality of complex red wines like Cabernet, but it will augment Cabernet's pucker effect, resulting in a rather acid-forward flavor profile that potentially clashes with most foods. But the chilled red served alone makes for a sort of wine cocktail.
Big Bold Red Oversimplified
Winemakers, or vintners, press and ferment the juice of darker grapes along with their skins and seeds to make red wine. The pressed-grape mixture is called the must, and it's rich in minerals, sugar and acids, or tannins. Vintners introduce the must to yeast, then age the fermented product in wood. The end result is red wine with multidimensional flavor whose components only begin to wake up at or above certain temperatures. If that certain temperature is cooler than the average room temperature in your house, chilling your red wine might improve its flavor.
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