Ode to a Chilled Red in the Shed

As a Northern Irish student escaping the febrile atmosphere that characterised undergraduate Oxford, I was lucky to have a fellow student whose father had a house in London.

One of my strongest memories of these jaunts was our shed raids. Her father often got cases of wine as gifts from clients and, lacking a cellar, simply kept them in the garden shed. Since I was only slightly interested in wine at the time, all I remember were the words Haut-Médoc. These bottles were poached for many dinners, but coming from the garden shed, often in winter, they were always drunk chilled, or even cold, warming in our glasses and hands as we set the world to rights.

That memory – of cold claret, angular and refreshing - is one of my strongest early impressions of wine. One of the critical things in drawing out its personality was its low temperature. Red wine, much like white or rosé, needs to be cool to be refreshing and moreish. Much like humans on trains and tubes, overheated, sweaty wines rarely look their best when you first meet them. 

Not everyone agrees. I was once almost expelled from a restaurant because I asked for an ice bucket with some St Joseph. After being told it was red wine, I nonetheless insisted, after which an ice bucket with approximately four ice cubes was produced. When I asked for more ice, things started to get quite frigid, although not in the manner I’d hoped. Nonetheless, the wine would have been ruined – it was a good 30°C when it arrived at our table, and it was about the same outside.

While we’ve all come across exhortations to chill the occasional Beaujolais or Valpolicella, in the sort of torrid summer weather we’ve been experiencing in the UK, all reds must be chilled, sometimes quite robustly. Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale pines thirstily for a draught of vintage/Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth” and later a beaker full of the warm south” that promises a purple-stainèd mouth”. That sensuous plea doesn’t sound like it’s calling for some fashionably low-extraction, low-alcohol wine to me, but rather some inky grape with Mediterranean grunt and grip.

Oddly enough, I suspect many drinkers who don’t like heavy reds dislike them precisely because they can feel loose, boozy and sticky. A quick spell in the fridge or even freezer can transform the wines, and their sceptics. These wines, structured by alcohol and tannins, have as much to gain by being cooled in warmer weather as acid-structured wines from grapes such as Pinot Noir. 

In this camp I’d include anything based on Grenache, which seems to me a grape that positively demands a cooler serving temperature all year round, otherwise the alcohol can become very marked. Red Bordeaux and Chianti with their more gastronomic genetics also benefit from being served cooler. 

So how cool is cool? Well, without getting into the Celsius and the Fahrenheit of it, cool means cool and cold means cold. If it feels cool, it normally is cool. If it feels cold, it probably is cold. I’m sure someone out there will sell you a wine thermometer for a tidy sum, but just touch the bottle and get a literal feel for it. If you do go too far, on a hot day your mistake will be corrected all too quickly.

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