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What's cool about cool climate wines

Updated: Jan 8, 2022

After two decades of huge, fruit forward, extracted wines geared up to earn big points from wine critics, there’s a move by artisan winemakers toward more balanced wines that show the unique aspects of the local terroir. If you’ve been hearing the term cool climate wine, then you’re already aware of one of the pillars of this trend.

Cool climate wines embrace a few important elements that are helpful to understand. Fruit, climate impact and style. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to grapes. They can be finicky and difficult, but we all know they’re worth it when the wine is good. They’re like that friend we all have, a little quirky, a handful, but we’d never trade them for anything. Although we constantly check that in our minds, don’t we?

Some of the most well known grapes that are grown in cooler climates are whites such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Muller Thurgau and Pinot Gris. Reds include Pinot Noir, Gamay, Nebbiolo, Schiava and sometimes Merlot and Cabernet Franc. These grapes are able to fully ripen in regions with average growing temperatures of around 55%-59%, which seems pretty darn chilly when you consider that it’s supposed to be summer.

Famous cool climate growing regions include Champagne and Chablis in France. The Mosel for Rieslings in Germany. Alto-Adige for Pinot Grigio and Piedmont Nebbiolo in Italy. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand. Willamette Valley in Oregon and Sonoma Coast in California for Pinot and Chardonnay.

Not only does location play a role, but climatic influences like coastal proximity, fog, wind and elevation have a hand in cool climate creation. And that’s not to say it’s cool all day. Living in Sonoma’s cool climate zone, I see beautiful hot summer days, but come afternoon that coastal breeze kicks in and it’s sweaters on for dinner outside. Some of the best cool climate regions have those big daily shifts in temperature that offer the fruit plenty of hot sun, while slowing down the ripening process with cool at night.

Aside from grape variety, the key difference in cool climate wines is the constant battle between sugar and acidity that goes on as the grape ripens. Unlike people, grapes start out tart and get sweeter. Know what I mean? Sun and heat promotes the creation of sugar which lowers acidity and leads to big, lush, higher alcohol wines. Cooler regions develop fruit with higher acidity which shows up as brighter, more tart fruit and lighter body.

Having just painted this issue with pretty broad and sloppy strokes, let me cover my bum with the caveat that many other factors influence the grapes. Individual vineyard sites are selected for their soils, exposure and other climatic influences that can impact the overall growing season in terms of time on the vine. And then there’s the winemaker’s influence. That’s where style comes in. The winemaker’s choice to express that character of their fruit, which seems in cool climates to be more elegant than brash.

In a general sense, you can expect cool climate white to be crisp, zippy with strong citrus notes. And cool climate reds to be lighter, with brighter fruit characteristics more balanced by herbal and mineral notes.

Climate change is one more consideration for wine lovers to take into account. Many established wine regions are already looking at new grape varieties that might be better adapted to temperatures as they rise. And some new wine regions are emerging for cool climate wines as viticultural techniques improve and these areas get a little warmer.

The good news for wine lovers is that a cool climate not only means more diversity in wines for us to enjoy, but new wine regions to explore.

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