The 20/20 Rule: Chilling all wines (yes, all) to get the most out of the bottle

Photo by Aaron Job

Most wine drinkers know to chill white wines before enjoying them. Fewer know to chill reds. And even fewer know the 20-20 Rule.

Serving a wine at the right temperature showcases all its best features, like a professional photographer taking your portrait: The head tilts slightly, the chin tips down, and the snapshot is taken from above with flattering light. Serve a wine off-temp and you get a muddled selfie snapped from below, distorting all proportion and beauty. Achieving that ideal serving temp requires warming whites a few degrees from refrigerator temperature and cooling reds down from room temperature. Enter the 20-20 Rule: Take your whites, bubbles, and rosé out of the fridge 20 minutes before serving, and put reds in the freezer for the same amount of time.

This simple guideline will greatly increase your drinking pleasure regardless of the price of the bottle. Here’s why: Red wines often contain higher alcohol levels, less acidity, and more tannin than white wines. Together, these components create the “structure” of the wine—the bones. Serve a bottle of Sonoma Cabernet or Spanish Rioja at 72 degrees and the wine’s balance gets thrown off; the alcohol comes leaping out of the glass and the acidity meant to bring lift instead falls flat. The wine will be merely a shade of its best self. 

Now, all red wines do not contain the same structure. More delicate reds, like pinot noir, gamay (Beaujolais), and cooler-climate cabernet franc (Loire) can benefit from even more than 20 minutes of chill time. Aim for end temps of 50–55 degrees for these lighter reds, and 60–65 degrees for medium- to full-bodied varieties. If you don’t want to get that technical, though, just stick with the 20-20 Rule; it keeps things simple while also spreading the message that reds need a slight chill.

For whites, refrigerator temperature mutes the wine’s aromas and flavors, pushing the taste closer to something akin to zesty lemon water. When served a few degrees warmer, 45–50 degrees, the wine takes on more weight and depth, and the fruit and floral aromas reveal themselves. Let the flower blossom. For full-bodied whites like chardonnay, viognier, and white Bordeaux, 50–55 degrees showcases their depth and power. Sparkling wine, however, should always be served well-chilled, as warmer temperatures will dissipate the bubbles more quickly and restrain the zest and energy of the wine.   

Serving wines at the correct temperature need not be a burden. Drink by the 20-20 Rule, and you’ll be able to keep your meat thermometer in the drawer while bringing clarity and greater enjoyment to your table.