Last time I waxed eloquent about our lovely morning fog here in Napa Valley. Of course, we haven’t had any since then…Anyway, I thought it might be a good time to take a closer look at how climate influences your enjoyment. That’s what it’s all about, right? As we said before, world wide, the best winegrowing regions tend to have Mediterranean climates and the growers in each region want the same thing: enough sun and heat to bring the grapes to complete ripeness, but not so much that they lose too much acidity along the way. And, each region has its challenges.
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. Those are going to be some tart, green tomatoes, right? The same thing applies to grapes. They start out with high levels of acid, low levels of sugar, and relatively vegetative flavors. As the weeks go by they gain fruitiness and sweetness, and the acid decreases, provided they get enough heat and sun. So, depending upon where they’re grown they’ll ripen slowly or quickly and end up tasting more or less ripe since the level of sugar and acidity is affected.
As we go from cooler to warmer conditions the flavors evolve, accordingly, from vegetal/herbaceous/earthy to fruity and ripe. Ultra ripe grapes may show tropical or even dried-fruit flavors. Intensity evolves, too, from subtle for cool climate wines to big flavors from warm climates.
This is not to say that cool-climate wines aren’t fruity. Cool-climate fruitiness tends to be subtle rather than dominant and where you might pick up berries, plums and tropical fruit character from warm climate wines, cool climate fruitiness often reminds you of lean, tart fruits like green apple or cranberry.
Cool climate wines – most of France, Germany, New Zealand, New York, Oregon – the list goes on – are relatively high in acid and low in alcohol (a little over half the sugar at harvest converts to alcohol). In these regions the winemakers pray for a warm, dry summer and fall 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 flavors are often less fruit forward, showing more herbaceous, earthy and mineral character, along with the fruit. 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 – most of California & Australia, southern France (Rhone, Languedoc), parts of Spain, Argentina, southern Italy – you flip the equation. They’re relatively low in acid and high in alcohol. The sugars accumulate very easily during the long, warm growing season and the acidity softens. These regions offer full, ripe fruit-forward flavors that tend to go down easy.
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. A solid alcohol gives wine much of its body, 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 tartaric, malic or citric acid – or a combination of them – to the juice or wine, depending upon the timing and the effect they’re looking for (the different acids have slightly different tastes).
What style of wine do you like? I like pretty much anything as long as it’s well made but generally seem drawn to cool-climate whites and warm-climate reds. Do you think you have a cool-climate preference or a warm-climate one?
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