When it’s hot out – like it is these days – you want something cold to drink. The colder the better. Bring on the iced mugs of beer, iced tea, and lemonade. Or the soda that’s cold enough to freeze your hand when you lift the can. Even when it leaves you clutching your head after a few sips, the rush of cold feels great going down.
But resist the temptation to try this with wine. Ice-cold wine can be refreshing, but it doesn’t taste like much. And as I’ve said before, if you’re drinking wine to cool off you’d better have a designated driver!
We all know that cold suppresses many flavors – just think of a slice of cold pizza. That’s why food that’s meant to be eaten cold, like Gazpacho, has a lot of flavor put into it, and might be a little overwhelming at room temperature. (To me, room-temperature Gazpacho tastes like salsa). The cold prevents flavor molecules from evaporating in your mouth as quickly as they do with food that’s a bit warmer, so you need more of those flavor molecules to begin with.
White wines and rosés are meant to be served chilled but not too cold. Too much cold throws off the balance of flavors that makes the wine such a pleasure to drink. You get less of the fruit and floral aromas and flavors and you’re left with the acidity. So you get the sensation that the wine is crisp, but that’s about it. Or if the wine is aged in oak, you might taste the wood flavor and not much else.
(On the other hand, the good thing about over-chilling wine is that it can make a not-so-great white or rosé taste almost tolerable by suppressing the off flavors. Like with rotgut beer. So if you open a bottle and don’t like it – and can’t bear to throw it away for some reason – just chill it some more and drink it down!)
Something similar happens when the wine is too warm. In that case, the acidity disappears, and the wine can taste flat and even a little sweet.
What’s the right temperature? Between 45 and 50 degrees F is best for whites and rosés. Most of us have our refrigerators set at about 36 degrees F, which is the optimum temperature for preserving food, but way too cold for wine. So if you keep your wines in the fridge, you’ll want to let them sit out unopened for 20 minutes or so. The wine will warm up slightly as you pour it into a room-temperature glass, too.
The tricky part is keeping the wine at the right temperature after you’ve opened it. You can buy an electronic contraption that will do it for you, but it’s summertime and no one wants to go look for an extension cord to plug it in outside. A double-walled acrylic or terra cotta “chiller” (they’re really more like insulators than actual chillers) will also work to keep the temperature down for an hour or so. If you don’t have either of those, a bucket with a mixture of about 1/3 ice and 2/3 cold tap water will keep the wine for a while. If the bottle starts to float, take a heavy coffee mug, turn it upside-down, and put it over the bottle to keep it submerged.
If you find that the wine warms up too much, pour a glass, drop in an ice cube, stir it around with your spoon for about half a minute, then take out the ice. You won’t get a lot of water in the wine, and it’s the quickest way to cool it off. I’ve actually seen this done in France and nobody thinks twice about it. So if anyone gives you the evil eye, just muster your best accent and tell them that this is what you do at home!
It’s hot enough that all I feel like eating is salads, but after a few days I want something more substantial too. One of my favorite summer salads is cooked cauliflower with tomatoes, capers, and feta, flavored with a little anchovy and oregano. I found that it makes a great pasta sauce, especially if you brown the cauliflower. Tyler Florence makes a pasta dish with browned cauliflower, pine nuts, and raisins topped with breadcrumbs, so I appropriated his cooking method and put in my salad ingredients instead. It’s delicious and quick, plus you can let it cool off and eat it just slightly warm. I use dried oregano in the dish – it holds up better while you’re browning the cauliflower and doesn’t get the bitter taste fresh can when you cook it. But go ahead and add a little fresh oregano if you have it.
Serve the spaghetti with – what else – a nicely-chilled white wine. Château de Clapier White ($12) has a great floral aroma, and a little bit of spice. It’s light but substantial enough with food and is a beautiful light golden color, so it looks great on the table. Château Milon Bordeaux Blanc (on sale for $15) is aged in oak, but it’s not overwhelming. The crisp apricot flavor gives way to a nice clean finish without the vanilla sensations you sometimes get in oaked whites.
Serves 4-6 depending on appetite
1 large head of cauliflower, cored and cut into around 1-1/2 inch pieces
6 tablespoons olive oil
1-1/2 teaspoons anchovy paste, or two anchovy fillets
1 large pinch red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
¾ cup crumpled feta cheese
1 or 2 tablespoons lemon juice or red wine vinegar
1 pound spaghetti
Salt and freshly-ground pepper
You’ll need a large non-stick skillet with a lid. A 12-inch pan is good, but if you have a 14-inch pan go ahead and use it because it will allow the cauliflower to brown more easily. Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet over medium-high heat, then add the anchovy paste or fillets and the red pepper flakes. Stir to mix and break up the anchovies. Then add the cauliflower pieces and 1/3 cup of water. When the water starts to boil, cover the pan, lower the heat, and steam the cauliflower for 6-8 minutes, until it’s just tender. Then remove the lid, stir in the oregano, raise the heat and boil away the water. Continue cooking the cauliflower until it’s a nice golden brown, stirring occasionally, about 5-10 minutes. Add the grape tomatoes and capers, then cover the pan, take it off the heat, and set it aside while you cook the spaghetti.
Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water until it’s done to your liking. Save a cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta and put it back in the pot. Pour the cauliflower mixture over, along with the feta cheese, two tablespoons of olive oil. one tablespoon of the lemon juice or vinegar and a little pepper. Mix everything together, adding some of the reserved pasta water if you need it. Taste for salt and add a little more lemon juice or vinegar if you like, then serve.