When I started drinking in earnest, back in the mid-1990s, we wanted red wines that were deep in colour, with lots of everything, generally speaking the darker and more concentrated a wine, the better it was. And some of these big, dark, deep red wines were a lot of fun.
This thirst for richer, blacker wines was probably a reaction to the pale astringent reds of the previous decades, made from high yields of slightly underripe grapes, and many weren’t very nice. As viticulture got better, and ambitious producers started picking fully ripe grapes, then red wines got darker.
But the pendulum had swung too far, and now we're seeing a rebound, an appreciation for paler reds, which haven’t been punched-down and stirred up to extract the maximum colour and tannin from the skins.
We're also seeing more reds made from grape varieties tending to paler-coloured wines - such as Cinsault, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Grenache, Trousseau, Ploussard and Mission (also known as País, Criolla Chica or Listán Prieto) - when treated gently.
The light brigade
The natural wine movement has played a part: it’s part of the natural wine aesthetic not to force wines into a mould that doesn’t suit them. So, many natural reds are a bit lighter in colour: a result of the varieties used, a tendency to pick earlier, and because of a tendency for gentle low extraction winemaking regimes. Especially when whole clusters are used in red ferments - that is, the entire bunches are put in the tank, rather than destemming the grapes and crushing them first. Winemakers like Dani Landi and Fernando García (Comando G) just keep the cap wet with a watering can, rather than pumping over or punching down to extract colour and tannins, and other flavour elements from the grape skins in a physical manner. This leads to paler-coloured wines.
Taming the tannins
So how is this relevant to chilling reds? Cooling down a red wine emphasizes the tannins – the astringent and slightly bitter notes that come from seeds and skins, and which create structure in the wine. Most white wines don’t have tannins like reds do (except for orange or skin contact whites) because the juice is pressed out of the berries before fermentation. So whites work well chilled. Reds that have lots of tannin simply become too grippy when they are cooled. But lighter colour also means less tannin, in most cases (Nebbiolo, the grape of Barolo, is a notable exception, as is Greek variety Xinomavro – these give pale coloured reds even when they are handled normally, and the wines can be light in colour and very tannic).
Lighter reds taste fresher and more alive when cooled down.
So as a rule of thumb most paler coloured reds can be chilled down, and the tannins don’t stand out, because there aren’t too many of them. But why would you chill them? Because they taste fresher and more alive when cooled down. Just as whites at room temperature taste a bit soft and flabby, lighter reds drink better a bit cool. We aren’t talking fridge temperature – 4 C – but rather just a short spell in the cooler to bring them from room temperature down to about 13 or 14 C.
In fact almost all red wines taste better at 17 or 18 C, rather than room temperature, which in the summer can be into the 20s. But paler reds are better even cooler than this. And remember once a wine is brought out and poured, it will warm up in the glass. It’s easier to warm a wine that’s a little on the cool side than it is to cool down a wine at the table. I’ve often been in the position in a restaurant where a red wine – and not just a lighter red wine – has been too warm so I’ve asked for an ice bucket. It causes some raised eyebrows, but it you’ve paid for a wine, then you want to drink it at the right temperature.
To chill or not to chill
Which reds should you chill? In terms of varieties, Pinot Noir (especially new world Pinot Noir), Grenache (where it’s not been extracted too much – fortunately there’s a trend to making lighter, more elegant Grenache now), Trousseau (aka Bastardo), Mencía, Ploussard, Gamay (red Beaujolais) and Mission (aka País, Criolla Chica), Pinot d’Aunis, Frappato, Nerello Mascalese and Cinsault. This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course.
Which reds shouldn’t you chill? In the past, in fancy houses with cellars, the wines would come up to the dining room at 11 C, which is cellar temperature. They’d warm for a bit, but they’d still be well below room temperature when served. But these would probably be aged Bordeaux and Burgundy, with naturally less tannin that a young chunky red today. If a wine is young and has a lot of body, with quite a bit of tannin, then serving it cold will be a problem. So room temperature is the rule for young dark-coloured reds, which these days is the majority of wines on the market. For lighter reds and natural wines, a bit of chill is probably the way to go.
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