Chill Out

Are cool climate wines the new cool? 

Ah, terroir. The magical interaction of geography and grape that stamps a wine with personality. And one crucial factor of terroir is climate, often dictating the length and depth of the growing season as well as the best grape varieties to plant.

 Experts generally agree: “cool climate” is generally one with four seasons, cool summer days and short growing season –average temps of 55-60 degrees during the growing season. And though we can generalize about climate from region to region, winemakers know that topography, aspect and weather can create micro climates, even within a vineyard. Throw in climate change and the equation gets even more complex. 

“Cool climate areas tend to be where you find some of the best wines in the world, many of the iconic wines,” says WineGame resident Somm Sam Haltiwanger. “Go back to the basics of vines; better wines come from vines that have struggled to stay alive. So, these areas where you have wind or fog or high altitude, you have better wines coming from there.” 

These are also wines that are versatile and winning with food. “Those are really our wheelhouse, these wines work great with respect to communal dining,” says Neal Wavra, owner of Field & Main in Marshall, Virginia. “You get the characteristics, but with lower tannin and usually a vibrant acidity that is wonderful at the table.” As the weather moves away from warm temperatures, he promotes the opportunity to pick a big white to headline the meal, perhaps starting with a supple red, like a Pinot, then moving into a full, textured white, say a Riesling, which can handle preparations as simple as roasting or as complex as curry or pickle. 

How to identify a cool climate wine? Because they do not ripen as quickly, grapes grown in cooler climes express lower sugar content, and higher acidity. Think wines that are lean and fresh, showing more subtle character in earth and non-fruit flavors. Low in alcohol content, these wines may also be sweeter, but not always. That’s the rule with wine, there’s always wines that break the rules.  

When playing WineGame, if you suspect a wine is from a cooler climate, listen to your gut. Look at wines from Germany and Austria, and the northern regions of France and Italy. Grüner Veltliner, Reisling and Chardonnay are some of the popular cool climate whites; classic cool climate reds include Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Nebbiolo (derived from the Italian nebbia, or fog). The Willamette Valley of Oregon, as well as other Pacific Coast regions, along with Southern Chile, Tasmania, and the southern island of New Zealand are examples of areas where wind, weather and elevation compound geographic location.  

Another huge factor for producers– to be tackled more fully in another story – is climate change. Warming trends and extreme weather, regardless of cause, are an undisputed reality in the wine world. The upshot isn’t all bad. Some areas, like England and Germany, benefit from longer and warmer growing seasons (i.e., a fizz from Harry and Meghan’s county of Sussex that rivals that of Champagne). Plus, grapes are now being grown successfully in regions not historically friendly to winemaking, such as Sweden and Ireland.  

“Many wine drinkers aren't familiar with cool climate areas, and that's sad. Warmer areas tend to catch people's attention, because more wine comes from there. Some of the best wine comes from the colder regions, but there is far less to be found compared to its warmer cousins,” says Haltiwanger.

 Another WineGame tell (and word of caution) – if you stumble upon a wine you just can’t stop drinking, it’s likely to be a cool climate wine. Higher acidity makes your mouth water, and your taste buds rejoice.