The Serving Temperature of Pinot Noir in Southeast Asia

The question of wine serving temperatures in parts of Asia requires a somewhat unorthodox approach, or certainly throwing out the old rule book on wine service moreover, understanding the divergence of geography and climate.

There is a tendency to think of Asia as a single (wine) market, subsequently there are ambiguous generalisations that fail to take into account the profoundly diverse drinking conditions.

That said, there is one universal aspect of Asia’s climate and that is humidity.

It does not seem to matter where you are in Asia and that can be right on the equator in Singapore or as far north as Beijing; humidity levels can be stifling and not just in the summer months. The humidity levels in Hong Kong during winter, despite the influence of the dry Monsoon coming down from China, are so high that if you don’t have a dehumidifier in your wardrobe running 24/7, your clothes end up being fungal science experiment.

Consequently, local inhabitants have evolved to living and working in an air-conditioned, 20 degrees Celsius frigidity practically all-year-round with the old adage of serving reds at room temperature taking on a new meaning when it’s swelteringly hot outside yet the dining room is like a refrigerator. Equally, wine fridges tend to be run inordinately cold and that first sip of cabernet sauvignon leaves your mouth puckering and as enjoyable as a cup of cold Chinese tea; which serves you right for drinking cabernet anyway!

Far from being a food scientist or chemist, I am convinced that humidity does have a discernible affect on wine diminishing the bouquet and a flattening or dulling of the palate and sapping the energy of the wine. I think most of us can relate to how unpalatable warm red wine is, but even when the wine is kept sufficiently cool, when you are dining alfresco in a tropical climate (read humid), you really do need keep red wine in a ice slurry; that is in an ice bucket with sufficient water so it’s not chilling it down in the way we would treat a white wine, but just keep it cool and fresh, taking the edge of it.

When it comes to the serving temperature of pinot noir, I always think of my many trips to Burgundy around February, in the grip of winter, when you descend into a cave and its actually warmer underground than outside, a relatively comfortable 10° to 12° Celsius and the wine drawn out of barrel seems a-point at the same ambient temperature, so alive in bouquet, purity of flavour and energy, yet this is decidedly cool in terms of drinking/enjoying a red wine.

I spoke at length on this subject with Rhone Valley vigneron Michel Chapoutier, the most fastidious, intense perfectionist winemaker I know on this planet, who opined in his professorial ethos, “What I can tell you is that the temperature is very important. It is difficult to talk about a serving temperature without speaking of alcoholic strength. Alcohol is used to make thermometers because it is very sensitive to the temperature and expands. That means that there has to be alcohol in the wine for it to be stable but not especially for its taste. So the higher the alcohol strength is in a wine, the cooler it should be served.”

I went on to say and relating this to his own region, “A Northern Rhone red such as Crozes-Hermitage with alcohol strength of 13° alc/vol can be served at a temperature of 17° Celsius, whereas a Chateauneuf du Pape from the Southern Rhone with an alcohol strength of 15° will have to be served at 1 or 2 degrees Celsius less.”

Taking all this onboard I never hesitate to serve pinot noir at 15° Celsius, or even lower because even if it is a little fresh, it can be kept longer in the mouth and reach the right temperature in less than 2 seconds releasing its aromatic complexity.

It is also pertinent to consider that the tannins in pinot noir are finer and suppler than say abrasive cabernet sauvignon and serving pinot noir at a cooler temperature does not necessarily result in that mouth-puckering, tannin accentuating sensation; rather it enhances the extract and energy in the wine – in much the same way a Beaujolais Cru is all the better served almost chilled.

Another factor that I am sure affects wine, or more specifically our sensory abilities is air-conditioning, which can play havoc with one’s olfactory’s and overall sensitivity; I find my nose and palate drying up somewhat from the artificial air in much the same way as being on aeroplane at 30,000 feet in a pressurised cabin.

Furthermore, this synthetic ambient room temperature tends to maintain the wines coolness too well and if a wine has come out of a wine fridge at 8° Celsius it stays that way, to which you find yourself cradling the glass in your hands to warm it up and contemplating putting the bottle under your armpit.

Possibly the greatest affect of temperature is psychological and we enter the realms of the metaphysical to comprehend the complexities of Asia’s humid climate and extremes between the outdoor and artificial ambient room temperatures making it a challenge to balance dining comfort and the tactile sensations of wine circuitous in reconciling ones mood and thirst; on the one hand hankering for a cold glass of riesling and on the other in needing a glass of rich, spicy pinot noir to warm oneself.

In terms of pairing with Asian food, there is no question that serving pinot noir at relatively cooler temperatures works well however, one needs to define the actual (Asian) cuisine and take into consideration where the pinot noir is from.

I have experimented in this area a great deal with legendary Singapore chef, Samia Ahad, whose eponymous restaurant, Coriander Leaf, and her comprehensive Pan-Asian-Middle Eastern repertoire is the perfect venue to research a myriad of spices, flavours, textures and palate sensations.

Ahad is convinced, and I concur, that new world pinot noirs, in particular New Zealand pinot noirs, with their more generous succulence and richness of berry fruit, and overall more approachable style pair very well with the spicier elements of Southeast Asian cuisine. Having tried spicy food combinations with red Burgundy and other old world producers such as Germany, served at cooler temperatures, we have found the savouriness and more extractive, firmer structure of these pinot noirs to be too angular or edgy and do not work quite as well.

One does have to careful though in the generalisation of Asian cuisine, and to be clear we are talking about Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, Singaporean (Peranakan) and many elements of Chinese and Middle Eastern cuisines, with an accent on spicy heat – not necessarily chilli hot, but warming and invigorating with spices like five spice, star anise, black pepper, mustard seed, coriander, turmeric and cumin to mention a few – and the myriad of curries, sambals and marinades used in this melting pot of cuisines.

And who said red wine does not go with fish? Lighter pinots, slightly chilled pinot noirs are remarkably harmonious with whole deep-fried fish marinated in spices and served with sweet chilli sauce (prevalent in Thai and Balinese cuisine); similarly, wok-seared prawns or crab that have substantial chilli, black pepper and garlic involved, a staple in the repertoire of Cantonese restaurants and a Singapore national dish.

The Pinot Noir section of the concise and focused wine list at Coriander Leaf, Singapore

Oh so seductive pinot noir with its naturally sweet and juicy red and black berry fruits, silky texture and supple tannins and with its inherent spicy-warmth cuddling up to the equally mouth-warming spices in Asian cuisine – it’s simply a natural suitor to dishes like our trio of Kebabs, or Baby Lamb Shank, likewise Tandoori Chicken or Duo of Labeyrie Duck and a logical choice with the Grain-fed Angus Ribeye Steak – actually it’s a thoroughly versatile wine style and we find the more rounded, fruit-rich new world pinot noirs work best with our cuisine although do delve in riper European vintages. Two Paddocks Picnic Pinot Noir 2008 - Central Otago, South Is. New Zealand (organic) Neudorf Tom's Block Pinot Noir 2008 - Nelson, South Island, New Zealand (biodynamic) Seresin Leah Pinot Noir 2008 - Marlborough, South Island, New Zealand (biodynamic) Mount Edward Muirkirk Pinot Noir 2009 - Central Otago, South Is. New Zealand (organic) Markowitsch Pinot Noir Reserve 2007 - Carnuntum, Austria (organic) Pascal Marchand Gevrey-Chambertin Les Roncevies 2009 - Burgundy, Fr (biodynamic) Bass Phillip Crown Prince Pinot Noir 2009 - Leongatha, Victoria, Australia (biodynamic) Calera Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 - Mt. Harlan, California, USA (organic)

But ultimately, the key element to enjoying pinot noir with spicy food is vibrant acidity which refreshes the palate and stimulates the appetite, subsequently serving pinot noir slightly cooler than perhaps normal enhances the natural acidity and moderates the spicy-warmth at the same time cleansing the palate.

In terms of coaxing those aromatics complexities that is the genesis of pinot noir, I would suggest that glassware is more of a problem than temperature, and invariably restaurants use Bordeaux-shaped glasses as an all-round solution and this does not encourage the aromatics of pinot noir.

Putting all this theory to work, Andrew Jefford, the legendary UK wine writer and commentator has just arrived from London, and staying with us a few days... and we are enjoying a bottle of Pegasus Bay Prima Donna Pinot Noir 2009, taken straight from my wine fridge at 10° Celsius, with the ambient room temperature at approximately 23° Celsius.

It takes a good 30 minutes for the wine to warm and open up, although this is a pinot noir of considerable substance, indeed my Red Wine of the Year 2011 and Andrew and I are making short work of the bottle, but as the last glass slips down, and with the wine thermometer showing 16° Celsius, it is just starting to reveal its complexities. Andrew is impressed with the wines structure and energy and agrees on the cooler drinking temperature being appropriate, as he grapples with the Singapore humidity, although we both agree we should probably have decanted the wine.