The Boston Phoenix
March 23 - 30, 2000


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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 acid tend to be high in these wines, and must be carefully controlled.

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 sites, microclimate is only part of the equation.

Here are a few wines from varying climates to help illustrate the variations in flavor:

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 age 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 the background.

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 wine[a]

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