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Jon Bonne  /  MSNBC.com
By Jon Bonné
updated 9/21/2005 1:03:12 PM ET 2005-09-21T17:03:12

We're long overdue to answer some of your questions.  This week, we'll tackle an excellent topic: the right temperature to serve wine.  Plus, some insight on the grape varieties of Bordeaux, and the (puzzling) difference between sauvignon blanc and fumé blanc.

None of your articles tell us at what temperature we should serve the wine. I have two bottles of syrah, one bottled in France and one bottled at a local California winery. Should they be served at room temp or refrigerated? It will be my first taste of syrah so I want it done right. -Lois B., Woodland, Calif.

Temperature is a matter of endless discussion, but it's safe to say that most Americans serve their red wine too warm, and often their white wine too cold.

Syrahs need a bit of warmth to express their terrific gamy, peppery aromatics. The ideal temperature should be somewhere around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, just shy of room temperature.

Now, red wines should be stored around 55 degrees, if you can manage it. (A portable wine fridge, or well-insulated basement, can suffice.) So you'll want to give your syrah an hour or two at room temperature to warm up a bit.  Warmer than room temperature and you'll probably start smelling more alcohol in the wine; too much cooler and the wine will taste dull.

What you don't want is to store your wine at room temperature or warmer for an extended period of time. At the very least, it will speed the aging of the wine, but more likely you'll end up "cooking" the bottle, robbing the wine of its aromas and flavors.

Every wine will have its own optimal serving temperature. But let's establish a few approximate rules of thumb. Note that the typical refrigerator temperature, in the high 30s or low 40s, is too cold for most white wine. If you chill your wine in the fridge, take it out beforehand:

  • Tart, bright white wines: 48-52 degrees
  • Sparkling wine: 50-55 degrees
  • Rich white wines, like an aged chardonnay: 58-62 degrees
  • Light red wines (Chianti, Beaujolais, young pinot noir): 60-65 degrees
  • Heavy red wines: 63-68 degrees

The perfect temperature for any given wine will depend on how much fruit, tannin and alcohol it contains. No surprise that temperature remains a topic of debate among wine types.

It's a safe bet, though, that you should never serve (or store) a wine above 70 degrees.

What goes in Bordeaux
I write from Brazil and I 'd like to know which are the six noble grapes of Bordeaux. If I do not make a mistake, they are: Cabernet franc, Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, carmenere, sauvignon blanc and semillon. -Alvaro M., São Paulo, Brazil

You're quite right that those are all grapes used in France's Bordeaux region.

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Sauvignon blanc and semillon are the two white grapes allowed for Bordeaux white wines. They can be used to make dry white wines, such as those found in the Graves area, or sweet wines like the famed vintages of Sauternes.

French regulations, as administered by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, also permit six red grapes to be used in Bordeaux wine.  Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc and carmenère are three. The other three are the much maligned merlot, plus malbec — which has gained fame in its own right in Argentina — and petit verdot, a hearty grape often used to add dark color and structure to the blend.

While Americans are used to buying wines based on their varietal name, Bordeaux wines are labeled according to their locality — in part because most are a blend of some or all six of these grapes.

I say fumé, you say ...
What is the difference between sauvingnon blanc and fumé blanc?  -Warren B., Morristown, N.J.

Terrific question.  No name in the wine world has caused so much confusion as "fumé blanc."

Grape-wise, they're the same thing. Both refer to wines made from the sauvignon blanc grape. On its own, sauvignon blanc usually tastes grassy and lean, with lively notes of citrus and a distinct minerality.  But Californian winemakers in the 1970s, Robert Mondavi first and foremost among them, worried Americans might appreciate such an unusual name or taste. They opted to age their sauvignon blanc in oak barrels, which imparted a smoky, warm taste (“fumé” means “smoked” in French) and softened the wine. Renamed fumé blanc, it enjoyed tremendous success.

In the past decade, many Californians have moved away from the richer style, embracing a racier taste evocative of New Zealand's delicious sauvignon blancs. Some have renamed their wines to match.  Others acknowledge that their sales rely on the old name, even if the wine has changed. Dry Creek Vineyard currently produces its crisp sauvignon blanc entirely in stainless steel. Yet it's sold as fumé blanc.

September is a wonderful time of year to be drinking wine: still warm enough that whites and rosés feel right, yet not so hot that hearty reds taste too heavy. A few recent picks:

Raffault 2004 Chinon rosé (Vin de Garde, $14): I've been looking all summer for pink wine from the Chinon area of France's Loire Valley, and this one is simply gorgeous. Chinon is Cabernet franc territory; the red wines can be lovely, but Chinon rosé remains a unique pleasure. The Raffault is berryish and juicy up front, with a zingy citrus note that leads to subtle mineral and herbal notes, with a refreshing finish. Silky as ghee, with enough substance to make itself heard. Lingers on its bright notes, and perfect with a light meal.

Domäne Wachau 2003 grüner veltliner Federspiel Terrassen (Vin DiVino, $10): Grüner is rapidly becoming the conversion wine for chardonnay junkies, and with good reason. This bargain pick offers sharp mineral and lemon scents, yet it's surprisingly rich in its core. Gracious and pleasing, if not profound, and a terrific demonstration of why grüner is such a perfect white wine for so many occasions. A guilt-free pour.

Chateau de Ségriès 2001 Lirac Cuvée Reservée (Kysela Père et Fils, $14):  Predominantly grenache, with a good dose of syrah, this red is robust and hearty, with brambly berry and rounded black cherry, plus black pepper, licorice and the scent of warm herbs. Chewy and yet supple, lingering after you swallow a gulp. Completely approachable, with mellow tannins that are perfectly folded in. The 2003 vintage is available now too, though it may still be a little young.

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