Not before time Australia is now waking up to the joys of cool climate wines. But what’s so special about them and why is it so?
Typically, wines from cooler climates are lighter, brighter, crisper and fresher than wines from warm climates. Alcohol levels are moderate, natural acidity is higher and varietal characters are beautifully expressed. Being more subtle, elegant and medium-bodied, these wines work well with a wide range of foods.
In comparison, warm climate wines tend to be big, bold and high in alcohol. In reds, rather than the fresh ‘red fruit’ characters seen in cool climate wines (think strawberries, raspberries and cherries), warm climate wines tend to taste of ‘black fruits’. And in the super-ripe wines favoured by some American critics the flavours may be more like raisins, prunes, port, even liquorice, which wine guru Brian Croser liked to refer to as ‘dead fruit’ characters. These big, soupy, high alcohol reds tend to over-power all but the strongest dishes and, contrary to expectations, they tend to perform poorly in the cellar.
But why are cool and warm climate wines so different?
The key lies with what happens as grapes ripen. Put simply, there are two processes going on – sugar ripeness and flavour ripeness. As harvest beckons sugar levels in grapes steadily increase and acid levels fall. This is sugar ripeness and it used to be the key guide to when to pick your grapes. But modern winemakers now also keep an eye on the development of flavours, colour and tannins in the fruit, known as flavour ripeness.
Ideally, sugar and flavour ripeness should occur at the same time but in warmer climates sugar ripeness tends to gallop ahead. As winemakers wait for ripe flavours to turn up, sugar levels (and therefore potential alcohol) can go too high and acid levels can fall too low. The resulting wines have gained weight and lost freshness and are simply unbalanced. Valiant attempts may be made to fix them up in the winery by perhaps adding water to dilute the alcohol (now quite legal) and adding acid.
Needless to say, better wines are made when grapes are picked at perfect ripeness. And that’s the cool climate magic – sugar and flavour ripeness are more closely aligned and consequently all the essential ingredients come into harmony as the fruit ripens slowly during the autumn. Ripe flavours, crisp acids, less alcohol.
To get the idea, try our gorgeous new Pinot Gris. In the cool 2022 season the pristine flavours and sugar/acid balance all came together beautifully in the grapes.