Warm Climate vs. Cold Climate Wine Grapes

Wine tasters are masters of noting the subtle differences in the flavor profiles of different wines, able to focus on the subtlest variances with an acutely sensitive palate. The difference between “citrus notes” and “orchard fruits” may not be obvious to the average consumer, but subtle flavors play a bigger role than one might think in determining what sort of wines one likes to consume.

Even the casual wine drinker knows that varieties of wine are most commonly named after the type of grape used in production. But what accounts for the different flavor profiles in wines of the same type? Why, for example, does a Napa chardonnay taste different from a Chablis, which uses the same grape? There are several possible reasons, but the most prominent is climate.

Climate Conditions

Climactic conditions are the primary factor in determining the speed and depth of the vine-ripening process. The average wine grape needs 1,400 hours of sunshine to ripen on the vine. Warm, sunny climates produce riper, richer fruit, while chilly climates or those at higher elevations tend to produce crisper, tart fruit.

When comparing wine grapes to other fruits, this is easy to understand. A peach that is slightly less ripe than average will have a firmer texture, a bit of tartness and a more acidic flavor. Meanwhile, a ripe peach will be sweet, rich and soft. This is also true of wine, although not in the way one might think.

Vineyard (Photo credit: Ed Clayton)

Sugar and Fermentation

While one might expect that wines from warmer climates should be sweet and ripe-tasting, it is often seen that dry, crisp wines still come from such regions. How is this possible? The secret is in the yeast. Yeast, which is used in the fermenting process, converts the sugars in grape juice into alcohol. Therefore, a wine grape grown in a warmer climate often results in a wine with a higher alcohol content and a richer flavor profile. Colder climate wines, on the other hand, tend to have a slightly more crisp, tart, flavor, but also a lower alcohol content.

Other climactic factors are influential as well. Wind, while good at moderating warm climates, can also interrupt the ripening process and lead to unfinished wine production if it is too strong. Humidity can lead to mildew, disease and over-ripening but can also, under the right conditions, produce a very desirable condition know as “noble rot,” which leads to sweet, rich wines.

Rain, of course, is also a key factor. Although most people tend to think of wine grapes as a “dry climate” crop, the truth is that they need a delicate balance of moisture: not too much but no less than 22 inches annually.

This sensitive balance leads to another point: Certain varieties of wine grapes are notoriously fragile. Pinot Noir, a popular and well-balanced wine that has become quite popular in recent years, is especially fragile and difficult to produce and maintain. This is largely due to its climate sensitivity and thick skin, which makes it tough to process.

Some varieties of northern grapes, although sturdier, must often deal with extreme temperatures and high winds, meaning that a whole crop can be easily ruined if not carefully maintained.

English: Photo of ice wine grapes, frozen on t...
Ice wine grapes, frozen on the vine. Niagara Peninsula, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ice Wine

One fascinating approach to growing grapes in cold climates is ice wine, a product that squeezes juice from grapes naturally frozen on the vine. This wine has an intensely sweet, rich and unique flavor that has become increasingly favored among wine connoisseurs.

For consumers, paying attention to the location and climate of a grape’s growth and production is a good way to learn more about a wine’s possible flavor profile. For growers, learning about proper climate management is an essential aspect of the craft. Either way, it’s as essential aspect of becoming a true lover of wine.