Microwave Taboo: ‘Nuking’ Wine is Surprisingly Useful

What do you do when you have a wine that is too cold? Nothing bristles the hair on my neck more than when I’m dining in a restaurant and the fine chardonnay I’ve ordered is brought to the table so cold that it must have been refrigerated in an ice bucket. Severe cold masks the deficiencies of a white wine, accentuating its crispness, but killing its aromas, tastes, and complexities.

There is a solution if you can get the waiter to do it for you. Ask him or her to put the bottle into that silent chamber called a microwave, and, 10 seconds later, like a client at a tanning salon who is flush with radiation, it exits about four degrees warmer. The same can be done for a red wine that has a slight chill. The practice is not widespread, the waiter may think you are wacky, and most sommeliers won’t admit to doing it.

Nuking your wine will not harm it as long as it is not overdone. The microwave oven is simply heating the water that is the major constituent of wine. According to Christian E. Butzke, an enologist at the University of California at Davis, exposing wine to 10 seconds of microwave radiation will not produce any chemical reactions other than warming the water in the wine, and nothing is harmed.

Before using the microwave, remove the metal capsule from the top of the bottle. It’s not necessary to remove the cork, since warming the bottle a few degrees will not significantly expand the volume of air between the cork and the wine. Set the microwave power on high. Every 5 seconds of nuking elevates the wine’s temperature by two degrees.

If the bottle is really cold, you may prefer to pour some the wine into a glass or small carafe first, so it can be brought to room temperature more quickly. Just don’t exceed 10 seconds of nuking.

The process is awkward because the microwave is associated with TV dinners. Although most winemakers are reluctant to endorse this technique for fine wines, the objection is more philosophical than rational.

Of course, there is a simple way to bring chilled wine up a few degrees in temperature. Simply let it sit at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes. This technique, known to the ancients, produces spectacular results with no effort, but sometimes you can’t wait 15 minutes. That’s when the microwave comes in handy.

A Tasmanian wine researcher reported last year that a domestic microwave could be used to improve the quality of pinot noir during winemaking. She used microwave heat to loosen the cells of crushed grapes from the inside, causing a more full-flavored wine with richer color and more tannins. The exact technique has not been revealed and commercial trials have not begun, but the wine industry is watching very closely.

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