To get a sense of the very practical reason we chill white wine, consider a glass of cold orange juice. Perky, bright, refreshing—there’s a reason it’s so widely downed in the morning. But have you ever consumed one of those tiny cups of inexplicably warm diner orange juice? It tastes sweet and flabby—even syrupy.
The same is true when it comes to wine: At colder temperatures, the acidity is more pronounced and the alcohol takes a back seat. Too cold, and you might miss out on some of the aromatics and flavors. Slightly warmer, the texture of the wine and any flavors that have developed with aging will come through, but the alcohol will be more obvious. When it comes to white wine, the collective goal is to get it to the point of being refreshing, without losing all of the aromatic, flavor and textural characteristics that make the wine distinct.
“Chilling white is a quite recent practice linked to the access to ice and refrigeration,” says Pascaline Lepeltier, partner at New York’s Racines, who says that a growing preference for chilled wines largely hinges on the evolution of wine itself. “The style of wines also changed a lot over the last century, leading to a desire to enjoy the wine colder.”
Over the past decade, there’s been a general shift in preference toward white wines that are lighter, higher in acidity and often made without oak. Stylistically, the promise of the wine is only enhanced by a slightly cooler temperature. But this is just one style of white wine in an ever-expanding kaleidoscope of profiles, from the high-acid effervescent prickle of txakoli to the savory notes of skin-contact orange wines. With this range, sommeliers have come to understand that different wines require different temperatures to show their best—that is, not all white wines are meant to be served poolside cold.
Zwann Grays, wine director at Olmsted in Brooklyn, likens a wine served too cold to chicken served out of the fridge. “You can eat a cold piece of chicken, but that’s not how it’s meant to be; you get the juiciness… all the things dancing around on your palate when it’s served warm,” she says. “With whites, that cold temperature becomes a mask over the wine; the cold steals the soul of what the wine can express, the voluptuousness of what it can be.”
Grays says she now finds herself serving whites warmer and reds a touch cooler than what diners might otherwise be used to. This is a change we’ll all become more accustomed to seeing as chilled light reds and “cellar temp” white wines become the norm on modern wine lists. If you’ve noticed your sommelier more routinely ask if you’d like your bottle of white left on the table rather than in an ice bucket, you’re not alone. Nothing has underscored this reshuffling of wine-temp norms quite like the rise of orange wine. Often described as white wine parading as red, it’s now common knowledge that it should be served warmer, typically at 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit—to make space for the tannic component that skin-contact aging has gifted it, without allowing those tannins to be too harsh.
The question we should be answering, then, is not why chill your white wine, but how (and how much) to chill it. Few have taken a more nuanced approach to this than Brent Kroll, who keeps wine fridges at five different temperatures at his two Maxwell Park wine bars in Washington, D.C. He says that after listening to bartenders debate proper Martini temperature, and seeing beer bars offer pilsners and stouts at varying temperatures, he couldn’t understand why it wasn’t so at wine bars.
At his bars, white wines fall into three zones: 40 degrees Fahrenheit for light, crisp white wines, like sauvignon blanc, riesling, albariño and Muscadet; 45 degrees for medium-bodied white wines with a little oak or lees stirring, so as to not cancel out the intended texture of the wine; and 50 degrees for fuller-bodied rieslings, white Burgundies (reds, too) and orange wines.
As Athénaïs de Béru of Château de Béru in Chablis explains, “It’s all about the balance point of each and every wine and their ability to express their own potential, the best way.”