Warm vs. Cool-Climate Wine

Question from Melanie: I’ve noticed that you and some other wine writers talk about cool climate and warm climate wine. I don’t really understand what you mean. 

Reply: Hi, Melanie. Thanks for writing! 

Climate has a huge impact on your enjoyment. You might find you prefer cool-climate examples of some varieties and warm-climate examples of others. It’s all pretty logical once you think about it. Whether you garden or don’t, you select your produce according to ripeness, right? Tomatoes make a good example.

Cool, climate, warm climate: If you like to garden, you know how seasonal temperatures affect the ripening pattern of your fruit and vegetables. Imagine trying to ripen tomatoes on your patio if you live San Francisco, where it’s foggy daily in the summertime, and temperatures rarely rise above 65F. Unless you’re really lucky, those are going to be some tart, green tomatoes that don’t have much flavor, right?  They start out with high levels of acid, low levels of sugar and vegetative flavors. As the weeks go by the sweetness increases and the tomatoey flavor develops, providing they get enough heat and sun. So, depending upon where they’re grown they’ll ripen slowly or quickly. In a cool-climate situation there’s a risk that they never get really ripe – they’re on the tart side. In a warm climate situation there’s little difficulty getting them nice and sweet and you need to pick them before they start to get mooshy and over ripe.  

The same thing applies to grapes. When they form on the vine, actually now’s about the right time for this, they’re tiny, hard and extremely sour. As the summer goes on they’ll get bigger, softer and the tartness will decrease as the sugar goes up. Flavor characteristics also evolve, accordingly, from vegetal/herbaceous/earthy to fruity, ripe and even tropical or dried-fruit flavors. 

TRIVIA!  The “brix”, or “degrees brix”, translates to the percentage of sugar.  If the fact sheet says the grapes were harvested at 23.5 degrees brix, the grapes were 23.5% sugar – very sweet and tasty, indeed!

So – Cool climate wines tend to be higher in acid and lower in alcohol (the sugar determines the alcohol). They often show more “green”, herbaceous flavors than their warm-climate counterparts and also more earthy or mineral-like character mixed in with the fruitiness. This applies to most of Europe, although their are a number of exceptions. The winemakers pray for a warm, dry summer in order for the grapes to become fully mature. In some years, sugar must be added to boost the alcohol and give the wine a bigger, more satisfying mouth feel. The wines from lesser vintages may be thin and sharp. Overall, these wines may not be as approachable as warm-climate wines, in their youth, but the acidity helps to keep them lively and allows their flavors to unfold over the years so they’re enjoyable later on. Fine Bordeaux reds, which are often high in both acid and tannin, can sometimes live for decades.    

Warm-climate wines are, generally relatively low in acid and high in alcohol. The sugars accumulate very easily during the long, warm growing season. The acid softens and develop full, ripe, fruity flavors. The downside to a warm climate is that on the hotter vintages the grapes may lose too much of the refreshing acidity and the sugars may accumulate faster than the flavors mature. On the warmest years, fruitiness may evolve into dried fruit, raisin-like or pruney character. A solid alcohol gives wine much of its body or weight. But, too much isn’t a plus, if it can be tasted or feels too hot on your palate. It also gives an impression of sweetness. Lack of acidity can take away from overall balance and aging potential. It’s quite common for winemakers to add it during production. Most of California falls into this category but, of course, there are exceptions.

I like my Sauvignon Blanc green and tart, so I lean toward New Zealand and the Loire Valley of France when I’m shopping for it. I prefer warm-climate characteristics for my Cabernet so I shop for Napa, Sonoma (the warm spots – Alexander Valley, Dry Creek), Paso Robles…

What do you prefer? Only one way to find out – taste ’em! Have fun!

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1 Comment

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One response to “Warm vs. Cool-Climate Wine

  1. Great article, thanks. I’m reading this before taking a tour of people out to a cool climate region

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