Most of us don’t like to be too hot, or too cold – and wine is no different. But how does temperature affect the way a wine tastes? And how do you know if a wine has been stored and shipped correctly, so you’re not in for an unpleasant taste surprise when you open a bottle?
The interesting thing is, man has been enjoying the basics of wine tasting since the late Stone Age. According to biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern, our Neolithic ancestors in the Near East left us a sort of tasting note in a series of clay jars from a party held in 6000 B.C. Organic residue found inside the jars indicates those clever Iranians in the Zagros Mountains were having some fun with fermentation. And guess what? They didn’t have a refrigerator. They didn’t even have a thermometer. They did have caves.
Grapes Are Heat-Sensitive Creatures
Okay, it’s doubtful that Neolithic winemakers employed much science in viticulture, but they knew that fermentation needs a little help from temperature if the two of them are going to convince grapes to become wine. Too much action heats things up, causing alcohol to skyrocket and aromas to disappear. Not enough heat translates to low alcohol content and can lead to overbearing aromas.
It was probably a hit or miss kind of experiment for those early winemakers. Today, however, that window of thermal opportunity nurtures fermentation in just the right balance to produce desired results, with different temperature ranges for different styles of winemaking.
Temperature Makes Wine Taste Good…or Bad
When the ingredients in a wine spend time in the barrel, the steel tank, or the bottle, they get cozy with one another forming bonds built by chemistry. Sugars and alcohols connect with aromatic esters, tannins, and phenolic compounds that contribute to aromas and flavors in the wine.
If the temperature gets too high during the aging process, these chemical dances take place faster, speeding them up for some unpleasant results. Conversely, some of the desirable reactions that really add to a wine’s profile won’t happen if the temperature is too low.
Controlling chemical reactions was a haphazard effort at best for early winemakers. Today, however, monitoring the temperature of the aging environment is critical to producing a reliably good wine in a particular style.
Wine Doesn’t Like Changing Temperatures
Once a wine is bottled and ready for delivery, temperature still plays an important part. Most wines can take a little heat. It’s the fluctuation from hot to cold and back again that matters most.
Here’s where it’s prudent to purchase from a reliable wine vendor, but even then it’s hard to know for certain whether a wine has been handled properly en route to the warehouse and store shelves. Mid-July temperatures can really change a wine’s personality if it’s sitting out on a dock in the sun, getting bounced around in a searing delivery van all day, or even basking in the glow of the afternoon through a shop window.
Always have a peek at the seal. Inspect for “pistoning” that might have sent the cork up and down with the expansion and contraction of heating and cooling. Loose or damaged foil, or sticky residue on the neck both shout “don’t pick me,” even if it’s the last bottle of your most sought after sip.
And the next time you’re tasting a glass of wine, pay a moment of homage to those folks back in 6000 BC who knew a good thing when they saw – or rather, tasted – it.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll take you on a virtual dinner party and examine exactly what temperature wines like to be served at.