If you're lucky enough to dine at L'Esperance, an elegant shrine of French gastronomy in the Burgundy hills, owner Marc Meneau may surprise you with the wine he recommends. Order pigeon with watercress sauce, and Meneau will suggest a red Volnay, cooled in an ice bucket to 55F. That's the same temperature at which Meneau serves white Burgundies, such as Chablis.
Chilling red wine? Isn't that the worst faux pas an oenophile can commit? Not any more. The French, arbiters of wine tastes, now drink many of their reds cool. Americans are catching on. A chilled pinot noir or gamay, served with fowl or light appetizers, "is perfect on a hot day," says Bruce Cakebread, winemaker at Cakebread Cellars in California's Napa Valley.
Actually, experts say that drinkers are relearning old wisdom. Reds were always drunk cool, even in winter, until wine cellars became rare and central heating changed the definition of "room temperature." Americans tend to serve reds too warm--and white wines too cold--says wine buyer Craig Jones of Stars, a popular San Francisco restaurant. To wash down such Stars specialties as roast duck with lentils, wine stewards chill some reds to 50F.
But don't stick a 1962 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in the deep freeze. Chilling rich, complex wines kills taste and bouquet. Instead, pick young, light, fruity reds as refreshing alternatives to whites.
FREEZER SHOCK. Just about any Loire red chills well, including Bourgueil and Chinon. So do Cotes du Rhone, Madiran, Cahors, reds from Provence, and such light Burgundies as Savigny-les-Beaune and Volnay. Beaujolais vintages have always been served very cool. In the Bordeaux region, the young wines of Graves and St.-Estephe chill nicely.
Among moderately priced chillable California reds, Cakebread likes Nouveau Beaujolais from Charles F. Shaw Vineyard & Winery. Jones suggests Joseph Phelps Vineyards' red zinfandel and Saintsbury Winery's Garnet Carneros Pinot Noir.
To cool these reds, immerse the bottle in cold water for 15 minutes. Add ice if the bottle is warm. Make sure the water covers the bottle's neck, says Meneau of L'Esperance. "Otherwise, you'll have warm wine on top and cool on the bottom." Refrigerating it is O. K. for up to two hours, but don't use the freezer: The shock "breaks the wine."
Serving a chilled red may shock tradition-bound guests. Just tell them to keep an open mind and imagine they're dining in the Burgundy hills.