Continuing the two part series, well… I realized this topic was just too much for one additional piece. Don’t forget, I am no industry expert. This piece is only offered from the perspective of the impact on enjoyment of wine flavors and structure. Folks, I have tasted a LOT of wine. Over the years, you ask questions, and you learn which factors affect the wine and how. Now I am sharing that experience with you.
PART 2a – How Terroir Affects the Fruit
This second part in the series is the most complicated. This installment in the series provides insight into the location factors that influence wine flavors. It is impossible to cover these next topics without technical detail. I apologize in advance for diving into the dryer Somm training. I will try to associate these influencing factors with their specific impact on flavors and structure, so it will offer more interest and meaning…
Climate is closely related to the idea of “terroir”. I put the term in quotes, because it is a concept more than a word. Terroir impacts both flavors and structure in wine (for example: blackberry and acidity). Here is the Webster Dictionary definition: “The combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character”. Close, but there is more to it than just that. Some additional ideas would be: proximity to bodies of water (i.e. lake, ocean), heavy winds, or fog during the growing season and the most important – local wine growing traditional practices.
Each of these can have a bigger influence than you would think:
- Foggy mornings can add a considerable amount of acidity to the fruit and ultimately the wine.
- Heavy winds have a more basic function – the wind keeps the berries dry, so thinner skinned varieties (Pinot Noir, Merlot) can be grown in humid climates, without mildew and rot.
Wine growing tradition can affect things like:
- Trellis design – Overhead trellising (called Pergola and common in Italy) makes it impossible to practice canopy management. This can lead to inconsistent vintages from varying weather conditions. Without canopy management, it is difficult to control producing burnt vs. under-ripe fruit from year to year. Italy has been slowly converting their premium vineyards to head-trained trellis and pruning systems for this reason.
- Yield per acre – Some regions can produce 8 tons of fruit per acre, or more. This is bulk wine territory. You can taste the difference when fruit is pruned from the vines early and the yield is reduced to 2-3 tons per acre, commonly found in the premium wine category. This always develops more concentrated and complex flavors. Ask a winery about the yield per acre for their fruit source. They should be able to tell you immediately. It is a VERY important decision and will separate quality wines from bulk wine. Your dividing line is at about 4 tons per acre.
Terroir can also be a philosophy of sorts. Have you ever considered wine to be a unique indicator of “place”? Wine can and does reflect local cuisine and culture. In many of the Old World wine growing regions, wine is viewed as a definitive indicator for the location where it is made. That is why they have actual government laws regarding how wine must be made in many regions. In this way, Wines from St. Estephe AOC, or Sancerre AOC all have a consistent character. Before my Somm training, I would have told you this was completely crazy. In the U.S., we don’t think of wine in this way, but still… when I drink a Napa Cab Sauv, it does take me back to past visits to Napa Valley.
Affects of Climate and Location on Wine
So, now let’s pick-up where we left off in Part One and dive into the climate and location factors that influence the flavors in wine:
Where is the vineyard located, in a: Maritime (adjoining ocean), Continental (inland), or Mediterranean (moderate temps & ocean influence) Climate? If you add soil type, these are THE most important factors in vineyard influence on the wine. So, how does this affect the way we experience the wine? Let’s start with climate. The primary impact of climate is on the varietal selection planted. As an example, varietals grown in the Loire are completely different than those grown in Bordeaux and those choices have an obvious impact on flavors in wine from the two regions. Within the same varietal wine, the climate difference impacts structure: Acidity, Tannins, Alcohol, Complexity (especially mid-palate) and Balance. This is the part of the discussion that becomes more variable and interesting.
Provence Region, France
In Northern Latitudes, these locations can be cool with fog, but winter temps stay moderate. If the growers can get the grapes fully ripe, watch out – fantastic wine results. Think acidity here. Wonderful climate for growing cool climate red varietals (if the soil is right) like Pinot Noir, Cab Franc and Syrah. This type of climate can also produce interesting cool climate style whites, like Chardonnay, Albarino and Pinot Gris. Think U.S. Sonoma Coast, or Spanish Rias Baixas. In Southern Lattitudes, the hot days and cool nights make killer warm climate reds, like Cab Sauv, or Grenache. Think French Provence, or Italian Tuscan Coast.
Clear Lake Region, CA
These inland locations do not have the moderating affect of the ocean, so these regions cannot extend too far north, or south for that matter. Wine grapes have very specific climatic needs. A very interesting and different example is the California Clear Lake AVA – an inland location, but at higher elevation with a large adjacent lake. This AVA is starting to produce structured wines and as the local industry comes to understand the vineyard sites better, the wines form this area will continue to improve. The varying Continental climates can produce a wide array of varietals. Burgundy, France is the classic premium appellation. In the U.S., it might be Walla Walla Valley AVA.
Rhone Region, France
These wine growing locations tend to be in southern latitudes, inland along rivers within 50-150 miles (or so) of the coast. The best reds produced in these areas are usually from Syrah and Mourvedre grape varietals. In the whites category, the varietals to look for would be Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. These areas offer some of the most complex wines in the world. You often find wines from these areas with crazy flavors, like: olive tapenade, tar and mint. Sounds unpleasant… but try extending your budget when the opportunity arises and buy a nicely aged bottle of Cote Rotie. Be prepared to have your socks knocked off! The classic premium appellation might be the Rhone Region in France. In the U.S., it would be San Luis Obispo County (Paso Robles AVA).
If you haven’t noticed what these locations have in common, think hot days and cool nights.
Grape vines need enough sunshine to ripen the fruit, but not too much heat… or else the wine tastes too flabby (try bottled grape juice). Cool nights add acidity, without which wines taste flat. It helps if Winter can be a little cold, so the vines can more effectively shut-down, go dormant and rest part of the year. Extremes within any of these factors makes for lousy wine, or dying vines.
This has been a brief review of Climate and its impact on Wine. The next piece will cover our most favorite topic – DIRT and vineyard site selection. I hope this series is offering deeper insight into the factors that affect wine flavors and structure. In particular, if you are interested in Wine Travel, this is the information that will make the experience much richer!