Thursday 20 February 2014

Wine temperature - a matter of degrees

There it was, on the wine label – “Best served at room temperature”. And I thought to myself, how on earth do you know the temperature of my room?

Room temperature is surely one of those measures of which everybody has their own opinion. How hot is a hot bath? How cold is a cold snap? How deep is your love?

But you may, like me, be horrified to hear that, according to France Today, “Room temperature, or chambré, is a measurement referring to a range of 12-14C / 54-57F, which is a few degrees above that of a cellar.

“Bear in mind,” they continue, “that this was set when châteaux didn't have central heating and their walls were three feet thick.”

Yes, I certainly will bear that in mind. As far as I am concerned, 12-14C is what we in London call “taters”. And it is not only way below a comfortable temperature for a room, it is also way below the 17-18C which is comfortable for mature claret.

I only know one person who has a similar notion of room temperature, and that is my father-in-law. His West Country house operates at Baltic temperatures, its oil-fired heating deciding each day whether or not to work, rather like a 1970s shop steward. Guests are to be found huddled together around the open living-room fire for warmth, distinguished from primevals only by their pre-dinner drinks, before reluctantly braving the chill of his Berlin corridor to reach the dining room.

In the wake of energy price rises, something of his philosophy has been adopted by his daughter. Woe betide if Mrs K returns to our house and finds the heating on when she’s not stomping snow off her boots. She sits defiantly in her study under three layers of clothing and a Siam Airways blanket; the temperature may emulate a chateau lifestyle, but the fashion aesthetic does not. 

No, I am not Ernest Shackleton, nor was meant to be, and unlike him I find it hard to write when I am dressed as if for an antarctic expedition. I must have a very different idea of room temperature to, say, an Eskimo. Perhaps, when told that a Burgundy should be served at room temperature, an Eskimo reaches for an ice-bucket. Or simply breaks off a piece of his hallway. 

And which “room” are we talking about? In my own lifetime, the English bathroom seems to have changed from a refrigerated container to an underfloor- and towel-rail-heated thermae. I rarely drink wine in the bathroom myself, but temperature-wise it may currently be the ideal place in which to do so, with the facilities conveniently to hand for dealing with any which turns out to be substandard.

In a full dining room, even at my father-in-law’s, the temperature soon starts to rise. That, however, may be due more to what are appropriately termed “heated conversations”. Perhaps, instead of concerning themselves with the room itself, wine labels should speculate about the temperature of debate within it? “This Beaujolais would best accompany cool consideration“? “This powerful Shiraz will fuel a flaming row”?

And let’s not get started on the summer, when (if we’re lucky) room temperature might well get higher than the chateau ideal. (In fact, isn’t that what most of us go to the South of France for?) 

Like most houses in the UK, we do not possess an air conditioner.The idea is so alien to us that, when I first heard about someone putting on an air conditioner, I asked whether they shouldn’t shampoo first. Our air conditioning is achieved through a handy, dual-position device commonly known as a window.

I think we can surmise, therefore, that in summer the temperature of my room is significantly above that recommended for a red wine. While at the moment, it is significantly below it. So please don’t tell me to serve my red at “room temperature”.

Temperature can make an enormous difference to the taste of a wine, and Jancis Robinson’s guide to the ideal serving temperature for various wines is terrific.  “Serving a wine at the most flattering temperature may seem absurdly high-falutin' and precious as an activity,” she says, “but it really can transform ink into velvet”. Frankly, given some of my own purchases, I’d be delighted if it transformed it into drinkable wine.

I am not going to the lengths of purchasing a wine thermometer, to check my wine before serving; somehow I feel the perfection would be outweighed by the derision. But I do have problems with this notion that “room temperature” is some kind of universal standard. Particularly as I sit here wondering whether I should keep my gloves on for dinner.

Oh, and I forgot to ask. That chateau room temperature, just a few degrees above that of their cellar. Did they have their tumble dryer on down there?


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