The complexity of our wine universe forces us to break it into categories to make sense of it all. Varietals and geographic regions are the most common, but hard to master. Another one I find quite useful is easier: climate. There are only two climates worthy of note: warm and cool.
Identifying wine profiles from these two climates is fairly easy. It is one of the essential first steps in my assessment of wines I taste blind every Friday night as I attempt to guess what each is. Last week I hit a home run with an Alto Adige Pinot Noir that I correctly identified. A wine from the mountainous region of Italy near the Austrian border, it had the typical characteristics of a cool weather pinot. From there I didn’t have far to go in guessing the region.
Vineyards do best in temperate climates. In the overall map of the world, this translates to between latitudes of 30 to 50 degrees. Above 50 (e.g. Russia, Scandinavia) it’s too cold. Between the 30s is the Equator, too hot. Within those two strips of 30-50 we find all the grand wine regions of the world.
Cool climates are not supportive of red wine grapes. Thus in the higher latitudes such as Austria, Germany or upstate New York, white wines predominate. This being said, with global warming, these areas are becoming friendlier to red varietals.
Let’s review reds and how they differ in cool versus warm.
Warm climates produce riper grapes, and that translates to wines with fuller bodies. They have dark red colors, high extraction and high alcohol. Their fruit flavors range from dark berries such as blackberry, boysenberry or blueberry on the lighter side, to prunes, plums, figs and raisins on the heavier side. The ripeness of the grapes also translates into sugar, appearing as hints of sweetness in the mid body of the wine, or in many cases, outright dessert-like sweetness.
Cool weather wines on the other hand are lean. They are lighter in color and body. Their fruit profiles are more redolent of red berries: strawberry, cranberry, or raspberry. They are lower in alcohol and sugar. They tend to be more acidic especially in their finish, giving them a tart flavor compared to warm-weather wines. While this feature may not favor them in comparative tastings against warm weather reds, their light structures and acidity make them more food friendly.
These distinctions become easily identifiable with common varietals that grow in different regions of the world, warm or cool. Syrah, cabernet franc and pinot noir are good examples. A cab franc from the cool Loire Valley of France where the varietal is the principal
red grape of the region (Chinon, Bourgeuil, Saumur) tastes totally different than that from California where the grape is hard to distinguish from cabernet sauvignon.
I find the warm-cool distinction most useful in pinot noir. The traditional home of this varietal is the Burgundy region of France where the wines are lighter in color, extraction and alcohol and quite acidic.
Burgundy has a cool climate. So do Oregon and New Zealand, and they have acquired a reputation for Burgundian pinot noir styles.
By contrast pinot noirs from California, a warmer region, are fuller bodied, fruit forward, have hints of sweetness in mid-palate and higher levels of alcohol. Some from Central Coast or Santa Barbara areas, the warmest of California pinot regions, can easily be mistaken for syrah. This, despite the fact that pinot noir thrives only in those enclaves of California where prevailing climate conditions are comparatively cool.
There are several cool zones where pinot noir is an exotic rarity, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. These are near latitude 50, white wine regions. Also included are Alsace and Alto Adige, mountainous regions of France and Italy that border German speaking lands. Let’s not forget red Sancerre, a pinot noir from the Loire. The climate in these regions used to be quite unfriendly to the varietal, resulting in nearly undrinkable, indistinct, watery pinot noirs. Thanks to climate change and warmer temperatures, new, better pinot noirs are emerging from them.
As with everything about wine, a simple concept can be made infinitely more complex. Many would argue that climate cannot be oversimplified into just those two distinctions. There are other weather conditions that play important roles in wine styles.
Take sunlight for example. Exposure to sunlight produces fuller bodied wines. Grapes need a minimum of 1400 hours of sunlight to ripen (translates to about two months). Vineyards exposed to more sunlight produce bigger wines.
Fog exposure tempers daily temperature extremes. In wines like pinot noir it can control over-ripeness and lead to better nuanced wines. Some of the best pinots from California come from valleys that suck up fog from the Pacific Ocean.
Wind, rain and humidity can be good or bad for wine grapes depending on their dose.
Finally there is topography. In vineyards layered out on slopes, the better wines come from higher up where soil drainage helps a lot.
The subject can be daunting. It certainly is for vineyard managers and winemakers. But for us drinkers, regardless of the complexities of weather, the simple distinction between cool and warm stands as a useful approach in assessing wines. Try doing this a while and you’ll see.