You’ve seen it. You’ve scoffed at it. Maybe you’ve done it in secret. It’s time to put down the judgment gavel and come out of hiding (that’s gonna be a popular phrase some day, count on it). Ice cubes have a certain place in the world of wine.*
Specifically, in a glass of wine—most often, and not necessarily least “offensive,” white wine. Or so we’re going to argue, and not just because the wine world is rife with strictures of “correctness.” And not because we think it’s a good idea to go chucking some chipped ice into that bottle of Chateau d’Yquem. We just want to stop the ice-shaming. Why? Well, for one, the world is already a sufficiently and deeply negative place right now. But mostly because people are doing it everywhere, and there must be a reason.
The best way we figured we could stop the shaming was by testing the ice-in-wine theory ourselves. Not that we had any doubts. Like anyone who abruptly takes up an unpopular stance, like saying Episodes I, II, and III somehow enriched the Star Wars saga, we’re happy to assume the correctness of our potential irrationality. For the sake of science, of course, and just a hint of day-drinking, we actually put our certainty to the test in the best possible way: a drinking experiment.
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In our experiment, we went for Chardonnay, not always a candidate for ice in the glass. Mass-market Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc are probably more amenable to the frostiness, given their two-dimensional, ridiculously drinkable citrusy crispness (crisposity?). But we figured Chardonnay, being the most popular white wine in the world and all, was the best candidate for the experiment. Chances are, since more people drink it, more people ice it.
Full disclosure, I absolutely hate oaky Chardonnay. It’s not a snobbery thing. Nobody who wears as many cartoon-emblazoned T-shirts as I do can presume elitism; it’s just a matter of taste. I also generally dislike meatloaf (and expect to get more hate mail for that than the Chardonnay thing). I will say that cheap oaky chardonnay is easily my least favorite, but chances are I wouldn’t like the expensive oaky stuff, too. I just can’t afford it enough to hate it. Kind of like unapologetically uncomfortable high heels.
But what I can afford to hate, I hate freely and joyfully. So for this experiment in challenging popular opinion, I went for a cheap bottle. Ten buck Chardonnay, right in my comfort zone (OK, depending on the month, sometimes that qualifies as a luxury bottle). Not going to name said bottle, though I will say it’s one of those booze labels that conspicuously try to appeal to the stereotyped wants and desires of the female drinker. Also it has to do with an article of clothing. OK, enough about the outside of the bottle. Time to dive in.
Alone, and with a slight (appropriate) chill, the Chardonnay tastes like someone dunked some wood chips in a vat of white grape juice. The nose is fairly redolent of Pam, as in buttery but also mildly chemical. The mouth is a bit better, certainly rich (if your oaky Chardonnay isn’t rich on the tongue, you bring back that bottle—receipt or no—and get a refund). Some apple flavor peeks out of the butteriness, but not quite enough to override the intense vanilla oak. As one coworker put it, “it’s like someone just ruined some apple juice.”
In its defense, I will say it has a little bit of palate-cleansing acidity.
Now, time to dunk in an ice cube. Actually two. Guess what happens next? Yes, our brazen theory is proven true. The ice cube absolutely opens the wine up, kind of like if Mr. Freeze did a roundhouse kick to a butter churner full of Chardonnay. More apple flavors, lengthened acidity—yes— dilution, which softened everything and made it all “more refreshing” (per previously quoted coworker). The oak is still there, but it’s softer. And if you leave the ice in long enough (and you will, since when you’re drinking wine with ice, chances are, you’re on “chill-out time”), you get a leaner, spritzer-like drink. Green apple skin peaks out, lifted by a bit of buttery lemon. (Think lobster butter, minus the lobster.)
Beyond softening out what you don’t like (and maybe you absolutely love it, in which case we’ll call it “lengthening out”), the last recommendation for putting ice into any variety of (cheaper) white wine: it creates an evolution. A mini-evolution but an evolution just the same. We’ve already explained why you don’t need to decant a bottle of wine—rather, why decanting it for an hour is often a mistake: every minute a wine is exposed to oxygen, it changes. Drinking your wine over the course of the decanting, you’ll get a sense for how it can open up.
Water can do something similar, albeit more aggressively, and not always to the benefit of the drink. There are some folks who insist a drop or two of water will “open up” a tumbler of whiskey. (And there are some who argue ardently against that, albeit from the inescapable recesses of well-worn leather armchairs.)
By the end, the Chardonnay tasted like cold, tartly refreshing, watery wine. Actually more like winey water. But it was light years more drinkable than it was without ice, both because it was cold and refreshing and because the water had actually changed the impact of the flavor profile. So take that, ice haters. (Another saying that will inevitably take off, albeit before global warming has melted all ice into a giant puddle of “woops-our-bad-life-as-we-know-it.”)
Basically, make like Elsa while you can.
*Unless you’ve already added Sprite or Coke or Hawaiian Punch, not recommended for red wine.