How can this be, you ask? Isn’t there one basic, simple wine rule left, and isn’t it that red wine should be served at room temperature and that white wine should be chilled?
Yes, but there is room temperature and there is room temperature.
In fact, red wine should be served between 60 and 65 degrees, and white wine should be served between 50 and 55 degrees (or, for our Canadian and European readers, 15-18 Celsius for reds and 10-13 Celsius for whites). In the U.S., we tend to serve reds in the mid- to upper-70s and whites at 35, which is refrigerator temperature.
Which means even red wine should be chilled. If red wine is too warm, the alcohol covers up the darker fruit flavors and the wine tastes tannic and brandy-ish. When white wine is too cold – and 35 degrees is much too cold -- the cooler temperature prevents the fruit flavors from showing through. Then the wine tastes like an alcoholic glass of fruity water.
So how did we get to this point? For reds, it’s because room temperature in Europe is cooler than it is in the U.S. (There’s also the idea that room temperature refers to cellar temperature.) And for chilling whites, it’s the difference between using a refrigerator, which as technology is only about 60 years old, and storing the bottle in the wine cellar, which the Europeans have been doing for hundreds of years..
There are complicated and expensive ways to get your wine to the proper temperature – wine refrigerators, wine thermometers, and even wine chillers. But the easiest way to do it, short of putting ice cubes in the glass, is to put a bottle of red wine in the refrigerator 20 to 30 minutes before you want to drink it and to take a bottle of white out 20 to 30 minutes before you want to drink it. The former will cool enough; the latter will warm up enough. This is not an exact process, and you may have to fiddle with it for a bit, but the principle is sound.
And about the ice cubes? The Wine Curmudgeon does it, and no one has arrested me yet.