The first time I came across the concept of chilling red wines was in one of the early American-style diners in my home town. My mum had got chatting to two French lads in the queue in the Post Office. They were from Clermont-Ferrand on a work placement at the local steelworks and she felt sorry for them, so invited them out to dinner – not with her, you understand, but with my school friend and me. She thought it would be a good opportunity for us to practise our French!
Anyway, the fact that I can remember them asking the waitress to bring an ice bucket with the very ordinary bottle of red we ordered obviously made an impact on me. The waitress was completely baffled but obliged. Hey, they were Frenchmen, they must know about wine, right? Either that or they were slightly mad.
Quite the sophisticates (we thought), my friend and I knew that ice buckets were for white wines and bubbly, but the Frenchmen pointed out to us that the waitress had reached up to grab a bottle of red from a shelf above the coffee maker and that it would be far too warm to be enjoyable. They were right, of course; as Frenchmen often are when it comes to all things food and wine.
Why chill red wine?
Even full-bodied reds might benefit from a short spell in the fridge on the hottest days, so that when you come to enjoy them they are not getting all warm and soupy but stay at the desired temperature for longer.
In general, the more tannic and structured the wine, the warmer it should be served (around 16-19°C). Chilling too much just emphasises the astringency of the tannins. However some reds, those that are fruity, perfumed and lighter in body, positively lend themselves to being served on the cooler side. Serve these at no more than 16°C by chilling them down for 20-30 minutes or more in the fridge and you will find that it brings them to life and lets their character shine.
Red wine styles perfect for chilling
Lighter-bodied and made from the thin-skinned gamay grape, wines like Beaujolais are archetypal cellar-cool reds. Alison Steadman's character Beverly in Abigail's Party knew this – was that a double-bluff of a gag on the part of writer Mike Leigh?
But snobbery and social mores aside, why does it work? This is a wine that is all about primary fruit aromas and flavours, at least at the gluggable Beaujolais-Villages level. The wines usually undergo a special fermentation technique – carbonic maceration – to emphasise the fruity nature and keep tannins soft. The grapes are left whole and undergo fermentation within their cells. The not-so-often-seen (thankfully, some might say!) Beaujolais Nouveau epitomises this style. Another feature of the gamay grape is that it is quite high in acidity – more like a white wine in structure, another clue as to why it is ripe to chill.
One to try:
The thin-skinned pinot noir makes some of the most delicate and ethereal reds known to wine lovers. It's a hard grape to get just right but when winemakers succeed, it can be truly sublime. Just like Beaujolais, it is not all about tannic structure and weight, and not averse to a brief encounter with the chiller. Simple fruity expressions of the grape can happily be chilled right down to enjoy with picnics and al fresco lunches. Even the most exquisite styles from Burgundy's hallowed slopes would benefit from being served cool – around 16°C when the bottle feels cool to the touch – to show off their haunting bouquets which will start to nudge their way out of the glass and become increasingly focused.
If you want to put the theory into practice, you could do a whole lot worse than add a bottle of this light cherry-scented gamay-pinot noir blend to your next order. It comes from the upper reaches of the Loire on the high ground that lies so far east that it is actually part of the département of the Auvergne, yet has more in common with near neighbours Burgundy. One of France's most northerly wine regions and with a distinctly continental climate, the fruit here has that lovely purity and tingle of crushed raspberries on the tongue.
Austria's principal red grape is a perfect red for chilling. It has a lovely cherry spiciness to the fruit but also some tannins and a deeper colour than gamay and pinot. The juicy-fruit character and soft tannins give it a bit more oomph than you'd expect and remarkable versatility when it comes to food pairing. I have even enjoyed it with fairly hot chilli con carne and it would be a great red to have on-hand for breaking out when you dust off the barbecue.
It may come as a bit of a surprise to see this Greek red listed here. Who would have thought that this hot wine-producing region is capable of making bright and elegantly perfumed wines? Perhaps it comes as less of a surprise when you hear that the xinomavro grape is often described as being a bit like a cross between pinot noir and nebbiolo. It certainly has something of that red-fruit tang and is perfect for serving cool alongside even quite spicy dishes. While some wines seem to shrink back into themselves in the face of a pokey chilli-spiked stir-fry, I can say from experience, this one positively raises its game and comes back at you with fruit-aplenty, particularly when made by master of the grape Apostolos Thymiopoulos. You won't be disappointed by any of his wines, but to get a feel for the style, start out on the Xinomavro Jeunes Vignes and work your way up.
I am sure you have your own favourite reds to chill with. Let us know over on our Community – we're always keen to hear your suggestions too!