I like the advice of Ursula Hermacinski, the former Christie’s wine auctioneer, when it comes to knowing what temperature at which to serve a wine: “Twenty minutes before dinner, you take the white wine out of the fridge, and put the red wine in.” This rule is intended to fix the two most common mistakes in wine service: People tend to serve white wines too cold and red wines too warm. Now, this is not something to wake up at 3 a.m. and worry about, but the fact is that properly chilled wines do taste better.
White wines too warm will taste alcoholic and flabby, while white wines too cold will be refreshing but nearly tasteless. As for reds, keep them too warm and they will taste soft, alcoholic and even vinegary. Too cold and they will have an overly tannic bite and much less flavor.
Champagne and other sparkling wines should start out totally chilled. Put them in the refrigerator an hour and half before serving or in an ice bucket with an ice-water mixture at least 20 minutes before serving. For vintage-dated Champagne and other high-quality bubbly, however, you should let the bottle then warm up a bit if you don''t want to miss out on the mature character for which you’re probably paying extra.
Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, white Zinfandel and other refreshing white wines should also be chilled to refrigerator temperature (usually 35 to 40 degrees) for an hour and a half before serving. But the better examples, such as barrel-aged wines like Fume Blanc (made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes) will improve if brought out 20 minutes early or allowed to warm up slightly during hors d’ouevres or dinner.
Chardonnay, white Burgundy and other rich, full-bodied and barrel-fermented white wines of high quality taste their best at classic “cellar temperature,” or 55 degrees. Winemakers in France’s Burgundy region know what they’re doing when they offer tastes to visiting journalists and wine buyers directly from the barrels of Chardonnay in their cool, humid underground cellars. So put these into the fridge an hour and half before serving, but bring them out 20 minutes early to warm a bit.
Sweet dessert wines need the same treatment as Sauvignon Blanc, above, with the exception of fortified dessert wines like Port and sweet Sherry, which are better at cellar temperature or warmer. Treat dry Sherry like Sauvignon Blanc, too.
Almost all red wines show their best stuff when served at about 65 degrees—cool, but warmer than cellar temperature. This is not room temperature, unless you happen to live in a Scottish castle or in San Francisco during July. So if you don’t keep your red wine in a cool cellar or cooled storage unit, you will enjoy it more if you chill it for 20 minutes in the refrigerator before serving.