Why you should store (some) red wines in the fridge

Red wine
Red wine Photo: Thinkstock

A few years ago, a hospitality mate told me about a couple who came into her restaurant for lunch. They ordered a $300 bottle of gamay from France's Loire Valley. It's a dry, delicate variety of grape, known for tasting a helluva lot better when chilled.

The (cold) bottle was duly decanted and served to the couple, who took a sip, baulked at the cold red ... and refused to pay for the wine, leaving my friend with an open, barely-drunk bottle of pretty great wine, and a bill for 300 big ones.

While this story is extreme, it shows how we feel about our wine. Red should be drunk at room temperature and white should be chilled, right? Well, maybe.

Jancis Robinson, who is often given the lofty title of the world's foremost wine expert, believes all wine should be chilled, mainly to avoid the kinds of temperature fluctuation that can kill the good stuff (that is, flavour) in the bottle.

On her blog, she writes that spikes in heat are "the most serious hazard for wine storage". When you think about the record heatwaves we've been experiencing in Australia - and the potential spikes in the temperature of your wine - it's enough to make you want to, well, drink.

Chilling these wines allows the soft fruit characters to come alive.

David Murphy, sommelier, One Penny Red

Red wine's ideal temperature, Robinson says, is between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius. When your wine gets above 30 degrees, she says, "its more volatile compounds may be boiled off forever".

But for David Murphy, co-owner and sommelier at Summer Hill's One Penny Red, chilling all reds is impractical and inefficient.

"Even most restaurants don't have an air-conditioned cellar," he says, "let alone the average punter at home. Yes, it's best to keep wine at an even temperature, but it's a huge ask to put every single bottle in a fridge. On very hot days, like the ones we've had this summer, we'll leave the air-conditioning on overnight, to ensure the wine stays at an even temperature."

As for wines Murphy does chill, it's the lighter reds, like the aforementioned gamay, pinot noir and cabernet franc.

"Chilling these wines allows the soft fruit characters to come alive," he says. (Conversely, heavier whites such as chardonnay and Burgundies are actually best served slightly warmer - but that's a story for another day.)

"For most of us, we don't have huge amounts of wine at home," Murphy says. "If you have hundreds of bottles that you're storing for years, then yes, it's probably worth investing in a cooling system that will protect your investment. But if you're like the rest of us, and you're going through 20-30 bottles every few months, you don't need to worry about those temperature fluctuations too much."

The best way to keep your wine cool, Murphy says, is to find a dark, cool place in your house where the temperature stays fairly consistent.

"Most homes have at least one cupboard or closet that's cooler than the rest of the place," he says. "Most of us don't have the room or money for a wine cellar, and that's perfectly fine. Lay your wine down in the coolest cupboard, and if it's away from direct sunlight, it will avoid those extreme temperature fluctuations."

Don't be tempted to store the wine under your house, though - this area, Murphy says, is famed for its humidity, which won't do your bottles any favours.

As for serving red chilled, Murphy admits it does raise some eyebrows.

"We do have customers who are confused by chilled red wine," he says. "We like to serve the lighter-bodied reds decanted, on ice, and we do have some customers ask why their wine is cold. It's an education process, and we think those lighter grapes taste better when they're cooler, but of course, it's up to the customer in the end. For some people, cold red wine is just a step too far."

How to keep your wine cool

  • When buying from a bottle shop, Robinson says to never buy bottles that have been in the window. These will have been exposed to the sun - and therefore, heat.
  • Don't fill your glasses to the top - again, this will allow the wine to warm up before you've had a chance to drink it. Fill halfway, and take a trip to the fridge when you're done.
  • Always store open bottles in the fridge, Robinson says. "Low temperatures slow down chemical reactions," she says, "including oxidation, [which is] the enemy of the open bottle."