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NorCal Wine Blog

Good Wine: A Matter of Degrees?

Chardonnay_grapes_close_upI tried a wine the other day at a walk-around trade tasting. It was an unoaked California Chardonnay. The winemaker poured it for me from the bottle displayed on the table.

I brought the glass to my nose with an open mind. The wine’s aromas surprised me: powerful but with an odd green figgy note. I took a sip. The wine was heavier than I anticipated, very round and without texture. The flavors were similar to the nose with fruit that was simultaneously green and cloyingly ripe. I was seriously disappointed.

I had been anticipating — perhaps even hoping for — a crisp wine with taut flavors. I expected green flavors, but wanted them to be of green apple and citrus. The winemaker said he strives to deliver minerality. I had gotten some, but it was too much like the aroma of an empty beer can. The wine was not something I’d recommend.

Later, I was standing near the same table when a women walked up. “Thank you so much,” she said to the winemaker. “This unoaked Chardonnay is my favorite wine of the tasting.” “Wow,” I thought to myself. “Either her taste is waaaay different than mine or I’m missing something.”

A few minutes later, I ran into someone who’s opinion on wines I value highly. He’s a master sommelier with an excellent knowledge of Burgundy. “Could you do me a favor?” I asked him. “Try that unoaked Chardonnay over there and let me know what you think.”

The master somm came back to me a few minutes later. “Thanks so much for turning me onto that wine,” he enthused. “It was really good. Exactly what I look for in an unoaked Chardonnay.” A storm of question marks and exclamation points burst over my head.

I walked directly over to that table again. “May I try the unoaked Chardonnay again,” I asked the winemaker. “Absolutely,” he said. Then he reached under the table and pulled a bottle from an ice bucket hidden behind the tablecloth. He poured. I sniffed. Tart fruit, citrus with a hint of tropical, limestone and steel.

I took a sip. The wine was very cool and fresh with a light, chalky texture. The flavors were crisp and the body medium-minus. It was a really good wine.

The difference, in this case, between a bad wine and and a good one was a matter of degrees — Fahrenheit. It’s impossible to know exactly, but I’d say the wine I tasted first was at about 62°. That’s an appropriate temperature for medium- to full-bodied red wines but too warm for most whites. The second pour was closer to 50°, the proper temperature for light- and medium-bodied white wines.

The difference in both temperature and perceived quality was extreme in this particular case. A delta of as little as three degrees can make a significant difference in the way a wine smells, tastes and feels. Warmer temperatures emphasize sweetness, ripeness of fruit, oak and alcohol. Cooler temperatures enhance the perception of acidity, tart fruit and minerality while making the body seem lighter.

You can easily experiment with this at home. Pop one of your favorite wines into the refrigerator for an hour. Take it back out and pour some in a glass. Give it a try, thinking about the aromas, taste and mouthfeel. Keep trying the wine at 15 minute intervals as it warms up in your glass. Experiment with a few different wines and you’ll soon find the temperature zones you prefer for different styles of wine.

For more specific advice on the best temperatures for different types of wine, and for other tips on serving wine, take a look at this article: Serving Wine.

By the way, I’m very happy to recommend the 2010 Joyce Vineyards “Stele” Chardonnay Monterey County ($16, 13.7% alcohol). It’s made solely from Dijon clone Chardonnay from the Franscioni Vineyard, fermented cold in stainless steel tanks. There was no malolactic fermentation, oak aging or stirring of lees. Serve it well-chilled.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. Photo of Chardonnay grapes by Dan Random. All rights reserved.


Cynthia Cosco
#1 Cynthia Cosco 2012-03-28 00:11
Great educational piece...thanks for posting


Cynthia Cosco
Doug Wilder
#2 Doug Wilder 2012-03-28 17:14
Fred, Good article on the effects of chilling whites. When tasting white and pink wines, I do a baseline room temperature (60F) evaluation first. It is my experience that if there are flaws, it is far easier to detect if the wine is not chilled. I then refrigerate and later allow the wine to warm slightly while tasting to see if it changes anything. The right amount of chilling can also benefit reds. At Pinot on the River last year, only one producer had their wine slightly chilled. It was a welcome exception on a typical sun-soaked October afternoon where some otherwise excellent producers wine didn't show as well as I know they can.
Fred Swan
#3 Fred Swan 2012-03-28 17:24
Hi Doug, you make an excellent point about the detection of flaws. I also agree with your cool to warm tasting method. It's just one more reason why tasting for serious reviews is best done under controlled conditions.
#4 gdfo 2012-03-29 16:05
What I would want to know is, how do you know the first bottle was not OFF to begin with?

I think a little temperature variance should not matter. From my experience when a white wine is chilled it requires more discrimination to get the whole wine. Many places and events pour white wine too cold.

You can do the same thing with water. Taste and smell a glass of water at room temperature and then cold.
Fred Swan
#5 Fred Swan 2012-04-10 18:03
gdfo, I agree that wines are often served too cold. Too cold is no better than too warm. That said, if I have to choose between too cold and too warm, I'll take to cold. Cold wines can be warmed in the glass with time or by holding it in my hands. Too warm can't be remedied by the drinker and I find the flabbiness less preferable to reticence and crisp acidity. Of course, the best results are found within a given wine's ideal tasting window of 5 degrees or so.

Wine isn't unique in this regard either. Eating an orange that's 95 degrees, or 45, isn't as enjoyable as one at a more moderate temperature.

I knew the wine wasn't "off" because I'm well acquainted with wine flaws and there were none.
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