While French reds such as Beaujolais and Chinon have often been served slightly chilled, many wine directors are finding that other low-tannin and low-alcohol wines can benefit from a little stint in the cooler. With the continued shift to greater consumption of reds in the US, and wider-reaching appreciation of them with different pairings, wine directors have made the move to make them more approachable in various settings. These can include warm-climate areas and restaurants that focus on seafood or lighter fare usually paired with whites or rosé wines.
“At room temperature, warm red wine can taste heavy and alcoholic with muted fruit flavours, making for a horrible pairing with food, no matter how great the pairing should be,” said Matthew Pridgen, the so-called ‘wine herder’ at Underbelly and One Fifth in Houston, which are respectively local food and steakhouse restaurants. Wine directors in the southern part of the US have long been leading the drive to chill reds so they can be properly refreshing when enjoyed on hot summer nights. It’s a trick that Europeans in hotter climates have used for some time—think of that cool glass of Bandol on a hot night in Provence.
“Red wines with a bit of a tart edge and soft tannin are best served chilled,” said Pallava Goenka, regional managing director of the Miami-based Speciality Restaurants Corporation and the seafood restaurant the Rusty Pelican. Currently, his restaurant is pouring Castello del Poggio Brachetto from Piedmont, Italy, Mollydooker The Boxer Shiraz from Australia, and Gran Moraine from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, chilled. He added that, “We also rotate through various Beaujolais [served at a cooler temperature].”
He added that the restaurant serves the bulk of its reds at 13 to 18 degrees Celsius, but lighter wine like Brachetto at 10 degrees and other low-tannin choices around 13 degrees. “Chilling the wine slightly helps reduce the perception of alcohol and brings out the wine's refreshing tartness,” he added. It will also make the tannins less jarring and the wine work better with many types of food.
It is not surprising that sommeliers in the hotter parts of the country are leading the drive to serve wines at cooler temperatures to give their guests a wide selection of pairing-friendly and palatable wines in the summer heat. Just half an hour south of San Francisco, restaurants in San Mateo - where the climate is signifcantly warmer - are getting in the swing of things, and Italian restaurant Pausa Bar & Cookery is serving its Lambrusco slightly chilled.
Part of the move to chill some lighter wines, such as Italy’s esoteric grapes Marzemino and Frappato, is seasonal in temperate climates and more of a year-round focus in humid regions like Texas and Florida. However, beyond the summer-fuelled trend, “chilling a red does a number of things and reduces the perception of alcohol and intensifies and brightens the fruit, giving the wine a lift,” added Pridgen. He serves all of the restaurant’s reds at 16 to 18 degrees.
At Pausa in San Mateo, chilling a handful of light Italian reds is a seasonal trend, said Steve Ugur, the managing partner and wine director. He chills sparkling reds, such as Raboso, as well as wines made from Italian grapes such as Schiava and Marzemino from the Trentino Alto-Adige and Lombardy regions of Italy. These reds, he noted, have “very little tannins [if any at all], but good acidity, fresh, and vibrant fruit aromas. This style of wine is versatile and can be served chilled or just below room temperature.”
The pairing picture
A light chill can also help to make many soft and light reds more approachable for consumers and renders them more food-friendly for pairings. “Lighter reds fare better with more of a chill,” said Pridgen. “Low acid and tannin, high-acid reds become electric with a good chill!”
Part of what makes these chilled reds more appealing as pairings is that more subtle fruit flavours become a focal point when lighter reds are chilled somewhat. “The acidity and pleasant tartness of both the Schiava and the Marzemino also balance the fruit flavours that are revealed when chilled,” said Ugur at Pausa. He added that, as a general rule, wines that generally benefit from being served at a cooler temperature are those that spend no time in oak: “Tannins are better expressed when the temperature of the wine is closer to room temperature.” Marzemino, he noted, “is excellent when paired with a fatty-fish red stew. During summer months—when tomatoes are abundant—stews are usually tomato based and nothing [works better than] a chilled Marzemino.” What is more, these types of light reds, particularly when served at cooler temperatures, are great with salumi and charcuterie plates.
However, one could safely say that most reds—even those with high tannins and alcohol levels—also would benefit from a chill. There are many bars in wine capitals like San Francisco and New York that the wine-savvy won’t frequent for red by the glass, as it is served way too hot.
“By reducing the impact of alcohol and lifting the wine's tartness , it becomes more food versatile,” said Goenka. “A Shiraz at room temperature will overpower the flavour of most fish and make many fish taste, well, fishy. But by giving that Shiraz a slight chill, its tannins and alcohol are more restrained so it will be friendlier to the grilled tuna or salmon.”
The cost benefit
Chilling all, or many, of a restaurant’s red wines—and sometimes even the decanters they are served in—can be a cost commitment. However, it is one that is likely to be appreciated by customers. “The benefits are numerous, but when I walk into a restaurant and see that the wines are kept in a temperature-controlled room, I know that they take their wine service seriously,” said Pridgen.
Some restaurants can go overboard, and Goenka warned, “There is a balancing act, and we must remember that there is a big difference between chilled and cold, and we don’t want our red wines cold.”
At least if the whites or reds are served too cold, they can be warmed in the hands. The alternatives for chilling them aren’t half as appealing.
Liza B. Zimmerman