The dilemma is common: It’s the dog days of summer and the mercury has spiked to dizzying levels, the kind of heat that begs for a wine that’s light, easy-drinking, and refreshingly chilled. Meantime the grill is crowded with sumptuous proteins that beg for something bolder, fruitier, more flavorful—something that’s decidedly not the crisp, cold white wine and rosés you’ve been sipping all summer long.
The solution is obvious: Just chill a bottle of red wine. But owing to a certain pervasive brand of wine drinking dogma, this most simple (and delicious) fix doesn’t always register with consumers. But blessedly, the misconception that white wines must always be chilled to near freezing while red wines must always live at room temperature is eroding as consumers embrace a wider variety of winemaking styles (a shift attributable at least in part to the growing popularity of natural wine). Some wine drinkers are also gravitating toward lighter, fresher, lower-alcohol reds, which often benefit from a little condensation on the bottle.
Sommeliers know that just about any red wine drinks better with a slight chill. But what about those aforementioned sweltering hot summer days when you don’t just want something lightly chilled, but actively cold? As a general rule, the lighter the wine the more chill it can take, and while many red wines drink best somewhere south of room temperature and well north of ice cold, there are plenty of bottles that can live right there in the fridge or ice chest next to the beer and white wine. You just need to know how to look for them.
Words to buy by
At a skin-deep level, you can often pick out lighter reds suitable for a good chilling by their color, with lighter, more transparent reds generally being more suited to cooler serving temperatures than deep, dark, opaque wines. But there are a handful of words you can keep an eye out for that indicate a wine of a certain lighter style.
The first: “Unoaked,” indicating that the wine has not spent time aging in oak barrels. Ideal chilled reds are bright, fresh, and fruity, and while time in oak by no means disqualifies a wine from a good chill, unoaked reds as a group are—again, speaking very generally—likely going to drink better at colder temperatures than heavily oaked wines. “Carbonic maceration” also describes a particular step in the winemaking process that you don’t need to fully understand to know that it’s generally applied to zippier light- and medium-bodied reds, and thus useful in identifying such wines on the shelf or online.
There are also certain grape varietals that lend themselves to time in the cooler more than others. Loire Valley cabernet francs, Beaujolais wines (made from Gamay grapes), and pinot noir are all known for wearing a slight chill very well. When it comes to serving colder, out-of-the-icebox reds, the varietal can be less an indicator than winemaking style, but reds made from Grenache (or Garnacha in Spanish)—a grape often used to make rosé wines—often drink quite well at lower temperatures.
Chill, but not too chill
On that note, you don’t have to take your reds all the way down to 33 degrees, as many are best consumed somewhere on a spectrum between ice cold and somewhere around 65 degrees. But they’ll also drink differently at 45 degrees than at 55 degrees, and this is part of the fun. As it warms in your glass, the wine will change, often revealing more herbal, earthy, or spicy notes as it does so.
Wines made from typical red wine grapes like the ever-popular Las Jaras Glou Glou or natural winemaking all-star Elisabetta Foradori’s Lezer are fantastic with a not-so-heavy chill. The same is true for some less-obvious varietals. Many Chilean reds made from País, often balanced with some Carignan, make for great chilled summer barbecue reds (like the very-affordable Viña Maitia ‘Aupa Pipeño’ 2019), as do wines from Spain’s Ribeira Sacra region (we like Guímaro’s Mencia 2018 and Bodegas Avianca’s Cuvee de O Mencia 2017—both excellent values as well).
Don’t be afraid to treat some ‘reds’ like rosé
That said, don’t be afraid to throw your reds in an ice bucket or cooler with your other ice-cold beverages and forget about them (remember, this is about easy-going summertime sipping). Broc Cellars Cabernet Franc 2019 drinks fantastically with a good chill on it, as does the fantastically juicy and volcanic Vino di Anna Palmento Vino Rosso 2018 from Sicily (though perhaps with less of a chill).
This is especially true for blends of red and white grapes that will often—but not always—stand up to cooler serving temperatures. These wines often live in a gray area between a red and a rosé, making them perfect change-of-pace summertime wines. Experiment with something like Copain’s P2 2019 (an excellent 50/50 blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris) or Welcome Stranger’s Optical Illusion 2019 (a mashup of California Chardonnay and Merlot) to find a serving temperature that best suits your taste.
If it feels like the temperature is masking some of the flavor, let it sit for five minutes while you flip the burgers. It will warm up. After all, it’s hot out there.