Vineyard Influence on Wine Flavors and Structure
As I dive deeper into this, the rabbit hole takes me deeper and deeper… I must apologize again. Location is too big a topic to include a discussion of soil types in the same piece… So, it appears I will have a part 2a, 2b and 2c in this series on “Why Wines Taste Different”. For those of you staying with me on this, thanks for your patience and perseverance.
This topic has everything to do with the individual varietal. If you want to find the best wines, a big part of the answer is in the vineyard location. Learning to differentiate the common warm climate varietals from the cool climate varietals is important:
(Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes)
Warm Climate Reds
Grenache, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Malbec, Merlot, Sangiovese
Warm Climate Whites
Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc
(Pinot Noir Grapes)
Cool Climate Reds
Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Merlot
Cool Climate Whites
Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Albarino, Pinot Gris, Glera, Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer
Climate Affect on Wine Character
There are many more varietals in each category, but these are frequently seen in single varietal formats and are the most common. Notice that Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Syrah are listed as both. These four are the most versatile wine varietals in the world. They can make quality wines in both warm and cool climates, but keep in mind the flavors and textures are totally different when grown in the different locations. Warm climate Merlot has less acidity/tannins and can be beautifully soft, or horribly flabby. Warm climate Chardonnay usually has less acidity and tends towards simple citrus flavors. Most warm climate Sauv Blanc tastes like fresh mown grass mixed with lemonade to me, but others enjoy it. Warm climate Syrah is another story… warm climate locations are better when moderated by a Mediterranean climate, but these areas can produce killer wines. Cool Climate locations can produce exceptionally complex Syrah, but sometimes are a little weak on fruit flavors, so are often mixed with Viognier to enhance approachability. I enjoy these wines tremendously.
What to Look For?
(Spring Mountain Vineyard)
Inland Locations at Higher Elevation
(roughly 2,000-4,000 feet)
For example, try the top of Spring Mountain AVA and Howell Mountain AVA in Napa Valley. You will find bold wines with a pleasant blend of acidity, tannins and alcohol there. In the hands of an expert winemaker, these vineyards can produce a wonderful, fully developed mid-palate. Haven’t heard the terms “attack”, “mid-palate”, or “finish”? Drop me a line and I will write a piece explaining these wine characteristics!
Steep Vineyard Sites
These sites stress the vines and drain them very effectively. The berries are usually smaller and the fruit (and resulting wines) always have more intense flavors. These vineyards are everywhere, just keep an eye out. The opposite holds true, be careful with wines made from valley floor fruit. If not managed carefully, these vineyards can become bulk wine territory! The most extreme examples lie in the Mosel Region in Germany.
Inland Foggy Locations
Remember those Cool Climate varietals… if there is enough sunshine to fully ripen the berries at these sites, WATCH OUT! These wines are amazingly good. These vineyards can produce complex, fruit forward wines with high acidity. Watch your vintages with these producers. In cooler years, these wines can be very rustic, and/or thin. U.S. Examples: Santa Rita / Santa Maria AVA, or Russian River AVA.
(Finger Lakes Vineyard)
Inland Locations Adjacent to Large Lakes
Often, cold winter climates can support vineyards in these areas. The lakes moderate the low temps at night during bud-break and harvest (Spring & Fall). Depending on the amount of sun, these vineyards can produce fresh, brisk white wines, or a well-balanced lighter style of red wine. U.S. Examples: Lake County AVA or Finger Lakes AVA.
(Sonoma Coast Vineyard)
These sites can produce excellent, or horrible fruit from vineyard to vineyard. The best sites don’t get a lot of rain and are watered by the dew and fog. In addition, higher elevation sites adjacent to the coastline are an advantage. The elevation offers more time above the morning foggy conditions to ripen the fruit and destroy the potential mildew. These vineyards will not produce easy drinking wines, but if you like complex flavors (sometimes unusual) and good structure, try a few of these and find out if they are for you. U.S. Examples – Sonoma Coast AVA.
Valley floor locations almost always produce easier drinking softer wines, especially when located in warmer climates. These are not my kind of wines, but I recognize that many consumers enjoy this style. Each to their own, but at least with this information, you can understand what influences how these wines taste. If you are willing to evaluate your preferences and find the vineyard locations that match your palate for each varietal, it will enrich your wine experience (find my preferences below).
Vineyard Locations I Prefer (a few)
Chardonnay – Burgundy AOC, Champagne AOC, Mendocino AVA, Santa Maria and Santa Rita Hills AVA, Russian River AVA
Sauvignon Blanc – Marlborough Appellation, Sancerre AOC
Chenin Blanc – Vouvray AOC, Stellenbosch and Swartland Appellations
Merlot – Right Bank Bordeaux AOC, Spring Mountain AVA, Walla Walla AVA
Cabernet Sauvignon – Napa Valley AVA, Left Bank Bordeaux AOC, Bolgheri Superiore IGT, Maipo Valley Appellation
Syrah – Southern and Northern Cotes du Rhone AOC, Paso Robles AVA, Walla Walla AVA, Barossa Valley Appellation
Pinot Noir – Burgundy AOC, Willamette Valley AVA, Santa Rita Hills AVA