Clime in a bottle
How weather affects wine
by Thor Iverson
To many people, wine is confusing. There are so many grapes, so
many wine regions, so many vintages and styles. Trying to figure it all out can
take a lifetime.
Realistically, most people don't want to spend a lifetime picking a wine to go
with tonight's dinner. They want to be able to understand something about the
wine from a quick scan of the label. This isn't always easy -- even the helpful
information provided on the back of the bottle can be confusing. If you've ever
read the descriptive paragraph on the back label of an American wine bottle
(foreign wines tend not to have them), you know what I mean: the text is full
of arcane terms that seem designed to turn wine buying into a mini-SAT.
For example, many of these little back-of-the-bottle essays mention climate, in
bewildering contexts like "our cool maritime climate buffered by warm southerly
breezes." We may know what such a climate feels like, but it's not so easy to
infer what effect it might have on a wine.
But climate is one of the most important factors in grape growing, one that can
have a profound impact on the style and taste of a wine. In general, there is a
relatively narrow range of climates in which wine grapes will properly ripen.
Too cold, and they never mature. Too hot, and they "burn" on the vine. Too dry,
and the grapes are undernourished. Too wet, and the grapes are so fat with
water that they're virtually tasteless.
Within the acceptable range of climates, there are also identifiable trends.
For instance, it is well known among grape growers that to produce intensely
flavorful, concentrated grapes (which lead to intense, concentrated wine),
vines need to struggle to survive and bear fruit. This is why so many of the
world's vineyard areas are in cold, stormy, or otherwise inhospitable climates
such as those found in Germany, Burgundy, and the Alto Adige in Italy.
Winemakers who are able to harness this potential make great wines, though they
will deal with heartbreaking losses in truly awful years. And there are other
dangers: tannin and
tend to be high in these wines, and must be carefully
On the other hand, grapes grown in warm, moist, cushy climates like Napa,
Australia's Barossa Valley, and Sonoma tend to get lazy and plump with water.
In addition, too-quick ripening can mean too-simple flavors (it takes time for
complex elements to develop in grapes). To make anything better than mediocre
wine, growers need to take steps to "thin the herd" -- that is, to eliminate
many grapes before they reach maturity, concentrating the vine's production in
the remaining grapes. Even then, the easy ripening possible in these regions
will lead to extremely ripe flavors in the wine. (Some people call these
flavors "jammy," since the effect makes the wine taste a bit like jam.) Along
with this extreme fruitiness often comes lower tannin and acidity.
For unfamiliar regions, then, information about climate can be important in
deciding what the liquid inside the bottle might be like. A wine from a cool
climate, like the Santa Cruz Mountains in California, will likely have more in
common with Europe's borderline-climate wines than it will with wines from
Napa. Likewise, a wine label that mentions "warm, moist breezes" means that the
wine's fruitiness will likely be emphasized over structure.
A modification of the word "climate" that often appears on wine labels actually
refers to the specific climate of a small vineyard area: "microclimate."
(Technically, the proper word is "mesoclimate," but the former has become
standard usage.) This term is used to draw a distinction between a regional
climate -- say, that of Tuscany -- and a particular local variation (like that
of Chianti Rufina, a small region within Tuscany).
The meaning for the wine drinker is the same; what's
important, after all, is the weather in the exact area where the grapes are
grown. Most winemakers like to say their grapes come from privileged
microclimates, but this is often no more than marketing hype. At the best
microclimate is only part of the equation.
Here are a few wines from varying climates to help illustrate the variations in
1995 Moulin-Tacussel Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($20). Grown in a
particularly hot and dry area, which draws out the wild and animal flavors of
the Rhône Valley's red grapes (syrah, grenache, and others). Smoky, big
black-fruit flavors, with an undercurrent of licorice. Deep and dense; will
well over the next decade.
1996 Ojai Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard "Hillside Select" ($27). This
California syrah is also from a hot area, but it's wetter and thus the wine is
less concentrated. As compensation, the winemaker chooses to crank up the
oak a bit, which adds some
bitterness to the spicy bacon-fat flavor of this wine. Black cherries fade into
1998 Barwang Chardonnay "Hilltops" ($14). Easy growing conditions lead
to big fat tropical flavors (dominated by pineapple, peach, apricot, and
orange), almost thick and spreadable, with a healthy layer of nutty oak.
1998 Chartron et Trébuchet Rully "La Chaume" ($22). Another
chardonnay, but grown in Burgundy's more difficult climate. There are some mild
tropical flavors, but minerality
and flowers are emphasized in this wine.
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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