When Should Red Wine Be Chilled?

When Should Red Wine Be Chilled?

When should red wine be chilled? Jamie Goode takes a look at the hot trend for lighter, fresher reds, and why they often benefit from some time in the fridge before you drink them.

When I started drinking in earnest, back in the mid-1990s, we wanted red wine that was deep in colour, with lots of *everything*. Generally speaking, the darker and more concentrated a red wine, the better it was. And some of those 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 under-ripe grapes, and many weren’t very nice. As viticulture got better, and ambitious wine producers started picking fully ripe grapes, 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.

The Growing Trend For Lighter Red Wine

We’re currently seeing a growing appreciation for paler reds that haven’t been punched down and stirred up to extract the maximum colour and tannin from the skins. 

The natural wine movement has played a part in this trend: it’s part of the natural wine aesthetic not to force wines into a mould that doesn’t suit them. As a result, many natural red wines are a bit lighter in colour. This is due to:

  • The grape varieties used
  • A tendency to pick grapes earlier
  • Gentle low extraction winemaking regimes

This is especially the case 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 Comando G (Fernando García and Daniel Landi) 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 red wines.

More gentle handling of the 'cap' of grape skins and stems during fermentation results in lighter coloured wines with less muscly tannins, described as less extracted.

Why Is Serving Temperature Important For Red Wine?

Chilling a red wine emphasises the tannins - the astringent and slightly bitter notes that come from seeds and skins, and that 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, which means whites work well chilled. 

Red wines that have lots of tannin simply become too grippy when they are chilled. But lighter colour also means less tannin, in most cases. Notable exceptions include Nebbiolo, the grape of Barolo, and the Greek variety Xinomavro, as these produce pale-coloured reds even when they are handled normally, and the wines can be light in colour and very tannic.

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 cooler. 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°C or 14°C.

What Temperature Should Red Wine Be Chilled At?

Almost all red wines taste better at 17°C or 18°C, rather than room temperature, which in the summer can be into the 20s. However, paler reds are better when they’re stored at even lower temperatures than this. 

Remember, once a red 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. This causes some raised eyebrows, but if you’ve paid for a good red wine, then you want to drink it at the right temperature.

Which Red Wines Should Be Chilled?

Grenache tends to work well chilled, but only when it hasn’t been extracted too much - but with the current trend for lighter, more elegant Grenache, chilled is definitely best.

At Terroir al Limit in Priorat winemaker Dominik Huber employs gentle winemaking techniques, which he describes as infusion, to give elegant expressive wines.

 Other red wines that are best served on the colder side include:

  • Pinot Noir (especially new world Pinot Noir)
  • Trousseau (aka Bastardo)
  • Mencía
  • Ploussard
  • Gamay (red Beaujolais)
  • Mission (aka País, Criolla Chica)
  • Pinot d’Aunis
  • Frappato
  • Nerello Mascalese
  • Cinsault

Which Red Wine Shouldn’t Be Chilled?

In the past, in fancy houses with cellars, red 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 wines would probably be aged Bordeaux and Burgundy, with naturally less tannin than a young chunky red today. If a red wine is young and has a lot of body, with quite a bit of tannin, then serving it cold will be a problem. So the rule is:

  • Serve young, dark-coloured reds at room temperature (these days, this is the majority of wines on the market)
  • Serve lighter red wines and natural wines after they’ve been chilled for a short time

Red Wines At The Sourcing Table

At The Sourcing Table, we’ve curated a collection of reds that are perfect for chilling, ready for you to discover your new favourite summertime drink, or find a red with a difference to serve at your next cheese and wine night.

Our selection of chilled red wines features reds from Italy, South Africa, Chile, France, and California, so there’s something to suit every preference. Browse our full collection of chilled reds here.

Wines to chill