The short answer is that wine tastes very different at different temperatures, so people make an effort to drink it at a temperature where it tastes its best.
Most wine is stored and served at the same temperature - either room temperature or refrigerator temperature - simply because these are the easy-access temperatures in modern households. They are convenient and serviceable for everyday wines, but not ideal for getting the most enjoyment from the finest wines.
Most wines keep best and taste their best - most balanced, smooth and flavorful - somewhere in between, meaning a little cooler than the room for reds and a little warmer than the fridge for everything else. See chart below for recommended temperature ranges by wine style.
To explore how this works, try putting your red wines in the fridge for 10-15 minutes before pouring, to help them taste brighter. Do the reverse for other styles – taking whites and rosés out of the fridge to warm for 10-15 minutes to help their flavors bloom. Only sparkling wines and sweet dessert wines taste their best straight from the refrigerator! Experiment with your favorite wines and you may notice that, within any style category, those wines highest in alcohol tend to taste better a smidge warmer, while those with lower alcohol often show their best with more of a chill.
That said, there is some personal and even cultural variation in temperature preferences. For example, Americans tend to drink their red wines five or ten degrees warmer than would be the norm in
Europe. It’s your wine, so you should drink it whichever way gives you the most pleasure – if you like your reds on ice, or your white wines warm, go for it!
WHY DO SERVING TEMPERATURES VARY SO MUCH?
Temperature has a dramatic effect on our sensory experience of wine. Even a few degrees can make the difference between a wine that tastes amazing and a wine that tastes just OK.
Why? What we think of as wine’s “flavor” is mostly perceived through our sense of smell, not by the tongue’s tastebuds. Different aromatic compounds in wine will vaporize at different temperatures, helping wines to smell bolder and fruitier when warm and milder and more mineral when cool. Temperature can affect our other senses too. For example, the tannins that give red wines a tactile mouth-drying quality will always feel much harsher and more sandpapery when wines are cold, but will soften and give a more velvety sensation as the same wine warms.
FOR A VIVID DEMONSTRATION, TRY THIS AT HOME:
Sample the same wine from two glasses side by side - one at room temperature and one at refrigerator temperature. No matter what wine you choose, the cooler glass will always seem less intensely flavorful but also more refreshing. The wine in the warmer glass will seem stronger in flavor, and offer a wider range of scents, but it will also seem less refined and more, well, “boozy”. If the wine is red, its tannins will seem more harshly bitter and astringent in the colder glass and more pleasantly plush in the warmer one.
WHAT ABOUT STORING WINES? ARE ROOM TEMP AND REFRIGERATION OK?
Room and refrigerator temperatures are fine for wines that will be drunk within a few months of purchase. For longer-term storage, the ideal temperature for preserving wine and allowing it to age gracefully is 55°F, known as “cellar temperature”.
Why? Since this is the stable year-round temperature found in any natural basement deep enough to escape seasonal swings, this is the storage temperature for which we have the longest track record and around which age-worthy wines are designed. Nowadays, few people have access to natural underground storage though, so those who wish to keep wine at cellar temperature can invest in appliances or install cellars that refrigerate to a perfect 55°F.