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Jefford on Monday: Some hate it hot

It's been a torrid couple of weeks. The thermometer crossed 40°C (104°F) in Gers and Haute-Loire on August 21st; Lyon had a week or more of afternoons at 37°C (98.6°F), which is around 11°C above its seasonal average; even Strasbourg, up at the same latitude as Paris, has been batting off a reel of mid-thirties (mid nineties).

Having slowed a little in cool July, the precocious 2011 harvest is once again galloping towards the finishing line, right across Europe. The heat has sometimes been saddled by storms and high humidity, but the first quality indications are promising nonetheless.

I’ve been to have a chat with the small collection of wine bottles housed under my stairs. They, by contrast, aren’t happy. Here in Languedoc, we have cooling breezes from the Mediterranean, but even so I can’t remember the last afternoon under 30°C (86°F).

It was the same or worse when we lived in Adelaide, and the story will be familiar to anyone who has ever summered in Los Angeles, Sofia, Perth or Shanghai. Ambient temperatures in these and similar locations for at least four months per year are too hot to store wines successfully, and ‘room temperature’ throughout those same months is also too warm to serve red wine in one piece. (The warmer red wines get, the more they fall apart.)

Yes, I know air-conditioning exists, but it is far from ubiquitous and is unlikely ever to be so. Cellars are rare in any modern house, and wine cabinets are expensive and take up space. Set aside wealthy, serious collectors; push ‘fine dining’ to one side; and the reality is that millions of bottles of wine are being badly stored, and red wines served far too warm, every summer season. This is true across much of the developed world, in both hemispheres.

I was less aware of this when I lived in Britain. In retrospect, it seems to me that if you had to chose any climate, and any location, in which to store and serve wine without taking special precautions, Britain would top the list.

It’s cool and damp, more or less all the time. Any longer spell of marked cold or heat there is a rarity. I can’t think of any wine which doesn’t actually taste at its best in Britain. Many wines, indeed, taste better in Britain than they do in their region of origin (vintage port and red Bordeaux being two notable examples).

Might this be an overlooked though historically significant reason for the sophistication and depth of British wine appreciation? Does the Institute of Masters of Wine owe more to London’s miserable weather than it realises? In pre-refrigeration days, remember, wine would have been a joke in any tropical or sub-tropical climate, and it would have been principally a winter pleasure in any Mediterranean-style climate.

Whereas Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pepys and Boswell could rock up at the Royal Oak year-round and tuck into ‘sherris sack’ and ‘Ho Bryan’ served, more or less, in perfect thermal shape. This wouldn’t even have been true in Stockholm, Berlin or Moscow. Amsterdam is probably London’s closest rival, as you can sense both in the loving tenderness with which wine is depicted in Dutch still-life painting and the bacchanals of Bruegel the Elder.

These dog days have also made me wonder if large wine-producing companies around the world conduct tasting trials of their main red-wine brands at 28°C (82.4°F) or 30°C (86°F). They should, since many will assuredly be drunk at that temperature. Indeed as more and more wine of all sorts is stored, served and drunk away from the cool temperate regions which were once the wine-consuming heartland, it is probably time for wine producers to come up with a range of much stronger messages regarding serving temperature than they have ever thought necessary.

“If the temperature is above 23°C/73°F, this wine should be served lightly chilled,” ought to be in bold type on the back label of every bottle of red wine. Nothing else destroys the red-wine producer’s hard work as regularly and as effectively as high temperatures.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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