The adage that white wine should be served cold and red wine at room temperature is at best an oversimplification.
White wine is often served way too cold. While sparkling and crisp white wines are best at colder temperatures, somewhere in the 40-to-45-degree range. Too much of a chill masks flavor and can give oak-aged wines a harsh, bitter taste. If you've spent $40 on a bottle of California chardonnay and all you can taste is the wood, chances are you'll be none too pleased. This does not mean that you should not keep your white wine refrigerated, but specific types of whites are best at different temperatures.
You don't need to go and buy a special cooling unit, but try to keep your fridge at a temperature that is good for your food. Sparkling wines and most lighter, unoaked wines and rosé will be fine at colder temperatures. Fuller, richer whites such as chardonnay, white Burgundy, white Rhône, as well as barrel and skin-fermented whites and white dessert wines are best at about 50 degrees. They should be taken out about 15 to 20 minutes before you serve them, assuming they are fully chilled. This of course begs the question, how long does it take to cool a bottle of white?
Two hours should do the trick in most refrigerators but I'm certainly not above taking shortcuts. Fill a bucket with ice water and let the bottle sit for 20 to 30 minutes. Or, a personal favorite, wrap the bottle in a moist paper towel and stick it in the freezer for the same amount of time.
Most red wine should be served at room temperature — European room temperature that is, meaning conditions where you're not sitting around in a heated apartment wearing a T-shirt in January, but sporting a sweater indoors, mainly November through March. Lighter red wines made from pinot noir, gamay and dolcetto are often best when they are cellar temperature (55-60 degrees). If the bottle feels too warm, place it in the fridge for 15-20 minutes, 10-15 in the freezer or 10 minutes in ice water.
No reds should be served warmer than 65 degrees, but pay closer attention to high-alcohol wines such as Amarone and zinfandel, as heat brings out “heat,” a wine term for noticeably elevated alcohol. Ten minutes on ice or in the freezer is all you need.
If you store your reds in a temperature-controlled area or unit, it will take about 20 to 30 minutes to bring them to room temperature, so keep that in mind if you want to serve a special bottle at a specific time. This is true of port and Madeira, too.
Wine is at its best when it is served at the proper temperature, and this is true of all pedigrees. Whether or not you are a collector or just a casual drinker, any bottle you open deserves to be given its best shot, and serving it at the proper temperature is almost as important as the quality of the wine itself.
Pamela S. Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched TheVinguard.com, a blog covering a variety of wine-related topics.