Taste the Difference: Warm vs Cool climate wines

In the world of wine, it’s always warm somewhere.  

Literally.  When it is winter wraps the Cabernet vines in Napa, the valleys of Barossa are basking in sun. Furthermore, wine can transport us to places we may not be able to physically go, especially just for dinner. Adventure in a glass.  

But hey, how does climate affect wine?  Good question. And the answer is complex. There are several factors at play. The most obvious is temperature, which can be the same in many climates (at least for a short time). In cooler climates, however, the heat drops off quickly in harvest season.  Elevation plays a role in climate, as well; high altitude locations are often cool climates, sometimes even when they lie in warm regions, like the Central Coast AVA, in California, where the Santa Cruz mountains and the Santa Rita hills keep the vines cool.   

What distinguishes wine from warm climate?  Trust us, climate confuses even the experts, but here are a few hints.  

  • Color: 

    • White wine: Grapes that are the white of water with a green tinge are likely cool climate. Then again, it could just be an indication of a wine’s youth. (See what we mean?) 

    • Red wine: Deep red or purple usually indicates a warmer climate (more sun, riper grapes, and thicker skins). 

  • Fruit Character: 

    • White wine: Cooler climate wine will show lemon/lime tart flavors whereas warm climate wines will have aromas and flavors of ripe stone fruit (peaches and apricots) and tropical fruits like mango or pineapple.   

    • Red wine: Cooler climes produce tart red berry flavors, while ripe, jammy ,black or plummy are descriptors you’d note for warmer climate wines.  

  • Alcohol level:  Most warm climate wines are higher in alcohol. 

    • White wine: 10-13% in cool climates and 12-15% in warm climates.

    • Red wine: 11-14% in cool climates and 13-15.5% in warm climates. 

  • Body:   Because grapes ripen more in warm climates, there is more sugar in the grapes which leads to more alcohol and often a more full-bodied wine.  This is true for whites and reds. 

Wine Descriptors: 

  • Cool climate white wines: Lean, tart, green apple, lemon, lime. 

  • Warm climate white wines:  Tropical, lush, ripe. 

  • Cool climate red wines: Raspberry, cranberry, sour cherry, herbaceous, black pepper, spice. 

  • Warm climate red wines:  Jammy, ripe, plum, ripe blueberry or blackberry.  


  • Cool climates: Austria, Chile, Germany, Northern France especially Alsace Champagne, Burgundy and Loire; Willamette Valley, Oregon; New Zealand, Northern Italy, Sonoma Valley, CA; and the Finger Lakes, NY. 

  • Warm climates: South Australia, most of California, Argentina, South Africa, Southern France, Spain, Greece, and Southern Italy. 

Tasting: Cool Climate/Warm Climate Face off: 

  • English Sparkling or a Non-Vintage Champagne (cool climate sparkling) - mineral, elegant. 

  • Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand or German Riesling (cool climate white) – zippy, lean, green grass or green apple. 

  • Napa Chardonnay (warm climate white) – round, rich, golden delicious apples, mango, pineapple.  You can opt to do a direct comparison by adding a Chardonnay from Chablis, Burgundy, France. 

  • Bourgogne Rouge, Burgundy or Cabernet Franc, Loire (cool climate red) – dry, high acid, cranberry, herbaceous.  You can opt for a direct comparison by adding a warm climate Pinot from California (avoid Sonoma, as its closer to cool climate, especialiy its costal or high altitude macro climates). 

  • Priorat, Spain or Southern Rhone Red (Grenache blends) (warm climate red) – Ripe strawberries, chocolate. 

  • Red Bordeaux (under 15% abv) (cool climate red) – cedar, tobacco, blackcurrant, bell pepper, dry tannin.  Opt for a direct comparison by adding a Napa Red Blend (Cabernet, Merlot)– Blackcurrant, plummy, violet. 

  • Shiraz – you can do a warm/cold tasting in Australia alone. Pick Barossa or McClaren Vale to represent warm climate, and Yarra Valley and Mornington Pennisula to represent the cool climate Shiraz. 

 The last word:  Keep in mind that climate is just one factor in determining the flavors of a wine.  Take for example the Semillon grape from Hunter Valley, Australia, a classic wine that is almost water white with a green tint, lemon, high acid and lean with typically only 10.5% abv.  Sounds like a classic cool climate wine but absolutely not: Hunter Valley is a warm climate also known for its Shiraz.  

Just when you think you get one aspect of wine, you’ll open a bottle that turns your theory upside down.

Welcome to the world of wine.  

Pour yourself a glass and enjoy the ride. 

gary mendel