Chillin or comin in hot?
Updated: Jan 9, 2022
Climate has a Godzilla-sized effect on wine aromas and flavor. Knowing the characteristic climate of a wine you are tasting along with its varietal gets you almost all the way home. Grapes are a little bit like Goldilocks. They like it just right. Sunlight, day-time warmth, night-time cooling. Most wine regions are between 30º and 50º latitudes for this reason. But then there are other factors that affect the climate and the aromas big time.
This is becoming a popular style trend in response to the opulent wines of the last decade. When you hear this, think acidity, lower alcohol and the fruit flavors tend to be more bright but less ripe. Why is this happening? It’s about grape ripeness. Grapes start out with very high acidity and as they ripen - produce sugar - that balances out. So in cooler areas the acidity remains a little higher.
Beside latitude, there are a couple good hacks for recognizing cool-climate wines. Look for proximity to a regular ocean onshore wind. Areas with regular fog which can come from oceans, rivers or low-lying topography. High altitude vineyards that cool quickly without sun.
Now that you know cool-climate impacts, just flip a u-turn on it. Heat causes grapes to ripen, creating more sugar which changes the balance. Fruit character becomes more lush, but also less bright and more jammy or cooked like a pie filling. Acid is lower and tannin is softer. But be aware that winemakers can, and often do, add acid and use oak to raise tannin to get lush wines with better balance.
Good clues for a warm-climate wine include latitudes closer to the equator, dry-sides of mountain ranges called “rain shadows” like Mendoza in Argentina and Eastern Washington. Another clue is distance from cooling influences, like Calistoga in the northernmost part of Napa Valley which produces more jammy flavors versus Stags Leap which is closer to the cooling San Pablo Bay which has a bit brighter, higher acidity flavor profile.