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waters on wine

The most heated wine debates, particularly on social-media platforms such as Twitter or TikTok, typically revolve around putting ice cubes in your glass of wine. Connoisseurs see it as sacrilege, up there with holding your wine glass by the bowl, instead of the stem. Serving wine on the rocks waters down and dilutes its flavours, they argue. It ruins the experience. Others have cooler heads. They see adding a cube or two into their glass as an easy and effective fix to a wine that’s too warm.

In a perfect world, your wine would be properly chilled before serving. But even at the best of times, there’s little foresight about which bottle you might be opening, or, if you’re away from home, temperature control might not always be reliable. When the weather heats up, we want our wine to be refreshing. I rather risk slight dilution than drink warm wine. A cube of ice isn’t going to spoil my sauvignon blanc, riesling or rosé. The expected aroma and flavour will still be there.

Why serving temperature matters

Considering wine serving norms, we drink our white wines too cold and red wines too warm. As we step into the hot, humid season of summer, getting the temperature right can become even more of an issue. However, there is no perfect temperature, no magic number for an ideal serving temperature. Wine guides often specify a range of temperatures that showcase various styles of wine to their best potential. A matter of few degrees won’t ruin your experience, though. Let taste be your guide.

Try a glass of your favourite wine served at room temperature beside one poured from a bottle that has spent 20 or 30 minutes in the fridge. You’ll quickly sense how the same wine from the same bottle tastes different. While different styles of wine glasses can make subtle differences in how you perceive the flavour of a wine, its serving temperature is more crucial.

When you serve a red wine that’s too warm, it amplifies the smell and taste of alcohol and makes those fresh, appealing fruit flavours seem more cooked or jammy. When you serve white wine that’s ice cold, you suppress its complexity and character. A frosty glass of white wine will have little to no flavour. (In some instances, however, that can be useful: Ask for a glass of ice on the side when confronted with the white wine served in the cabin of an airplane. Unless you’re sitting near the pointy end of the plane, the wine selection is likely not tops.)

Chilling wine increases its sourness and bitterness, which adds to the sense of freshness on the palate we savour in many wines, especially aromatic white wines, such as sauvignon blanc or riesling. It also reduces the sense of sweetness and aromatic intensity of wine.

In broad terms, lighter-bodied white wines should be served slightly cooler than full-bodied ones (say 30 minutes in the refrigerator compared with 15 to 20 minutes). Most red wines benefit from a quick spell in the fridge. A brief 10 to 15 minutes in the refrigerator should help bring out the best in your favourite red wine.

How to chill-out your wine

In warmer parts of France, serving wine on the rocks has been fashionable for years. Restaurant terraces and patios in the south of France often offer wines served à la piscine (the swimming pool) which entails rosé, champagne or white wine served in a goblet packed with ice. Adding that much ice to a beverage cools its temperature and, in time, will dilute its colours, aromas, taste and texture. Champagne brands created special cuvées, such as Möet et Chandon Ice Imperial and Veuve Clicquot Rich, to be served on ice. These are richer and sweeter styles of sparkling wine that maintain their flavour intensity and are being used to make high quality Champagne cocktails.

However, if adding any amount of ice to your wine glass strikes you as wrong, you could be like my friends who use whisky stones (sometimes sold as scotch rocks). These are small cubes made out of materials such as stainless steel or soapstone that get ice-cold in the freezer and can be added to any drink for an instant chill without the dilution. I have also read about people freezing grapes or other small fruits to use to the same effect. I envy their freezer space and forward thinking. Life – and summer – seem too short to spend time freezing fruit to keep my wine cool.

If you’re looking to give your bottle a quick chill, there are countless YouTube and TikTok posts that advise wrapping a few sheets of damp kitchen towels around the bottle and placing it in the freezer for 15 to 20 minutes. That seems like a short span of time to bring a room temperature bottle down to serving temperature. Thirty minutes or longer seems more realistic. Learn from my mistakes: Any time you place a bottle of wine in the freezer, set a timer lest you unwittingly create a winesicle or worse, end up with an exploded bottle.

I recommend using an ice bucket or large kitchen pot that’s filled with two-thirds ice cubes and one-third water and plunge in your desired bottle. There is a reason sommeliers use this method in restaurants. Immerse your bottle fully for best effect or rotate several times while it is chilling to prevent that first pour from being warm. You could add a handful of salt, which lowers the water’s freezing point, to speed up the process, but even if you don’t that bottle of rosé will be nicely chilled in 10 to 15 minutes.

The bottom line: I appreciate the romantic notions of wine as much as the next grape nut. I also don’t care to undermine the efforts of winemakers the world over. But I also believe that wine is about pleasure. It’s about what tastes good to you. To my taste, on some hot summer nights, that’s served over ice from a stemless wine glass.

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