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  • Understanding wine jargon - hot, cold, new, old - what does it all mean?

    Wine tastings, wine notes, wine columns and winemaker speeches are continuously peppered with phrases such as “New World’, ‘Old World’, ‘cool climate’, ‘altitude’, ‘hot climate’, and such like.  But what do these technical – sounding words really mean when it comes to wine?

    Let’s begin with the difference between Old World and New World, which are terms that have evolved over the last 30 years or so.  In a nutshell, ‘Old World’, refers largely to Europe, to the wine-producing countries, which have made wine, and also sold wine in the UK, for centuries – we can’t quite refer to this as ‘northern hemisphere’, since this would include California and USA wine regions, which are technically ‘New World’.

    Just over 35 years ago, there were a few dribbles of wine from Australia and California hitting our shelves.  Relatively speaking, South Africa was still struggling with apartheid restrictions, and South America was an exotic, remote-sounding land.  Then the Aussies hit our shores, or rather our wine shelves, with energy, force and a totally new way of looking at wine.

    In the early days of the Australian wine invasion, which was later followed by California, Chile, South Africa and then Argentina, suddenly, choosing wine became easier. The wines had names you could pronounce (at that time Jacobs Creek dominated); they were labeled with the name of the grape variety, so you knew what style you were choosing. Far more straightforward than centuries of old –fashioned European wine regulations, which meant that labels were confusing, providing little easily-understandable information -  labels weren't (and still aren't) allowed to state that Chablis actually comes from the Chardonnay grape, and that Sancerre is made from Sauvignon Blanc.

    This, in a nutshell is how we split and define Old World and New World wines, which brings me neatly onto how we define ‘cool climate’ and ‘hot climate’.  Back in the early days of the influx of ‘New World’ wines, this was relatively simple, at a very basic level; it’s hot in Australia, California, Chile and South Africa; it’s colder in Europe. And that was how the very early days of describing New World wines, was like – Australian wines were sunshine in a glass; fruit bomb flavours, golden colours for white, rich, velvety, spicy reds – a very broad generalisation, but true. ‘Hot climate’ wines were also likely to be headier, and higher in alcohol.

    Thirty years on, the situation is rather different, as the world has explored and discovered different regions, and hidden corners within all these countries – the difference between the sultry, sun-baked vineyards of the Barossa Valley, lying about an hour north of Adelaide, and the craggy, windswept cliffs of Mornington Peninsula, 800km south, close to Melbourne, can be as varied as the contrast in climate between the French Riviera, and a blustery day on the Norfolk coast.

    Alsace, a cooler wine making region in France

    Generally cool climate regions are at the more extremes of the wine producing world – so Champagne, Alsace, Germany, Burgundy, but also New Zealand’s Central Otago, Chile’s Patagonia, and South Africa’s Elim areas, would qualify.  But it can also get a little more complicated than that, when you throw altitude into the equation.  Vineyard sites that are high above sea level, close to the mountains, or adjacent to the oceans will generally have fresher temperatures, colder nights, and therefore longer growing seasons – one of the classic examples of this are the vineyards of Vina Falernia, which are situated about as far north in Chile as they grow vines, nudging into desert territory, and with cacti plants sprinkled alongside vineyards; yet because the vineyards are so high up, and so close to the cooling breezes of the Pacific ocean, they can still produce, gentle, crisp, lighter styles of wine.

    So, cutting to the chase, what are the benefits of cool versus hot climate and, which grapes are most at home in each of these environments? It’s all about how grapes ripen, and the balance of sugars and acids in the grapes’ composition. Basic science has taught even primary school children, that plants need sunlight for photosynthesis, to produce energy; sunshine ripens grapes. In sunlight the sugars (energy) from the vines go straight to the grapes, which means they ripen more quickly and are also likely to produce fuller, higher alcohol level wines, as sugars convert to alcohol during the fermentation process.

    This is great stuff for red grapes, with lots of tannin and concentration – they need sun and warmth to convert the acids to ripe, sweet flavours, and this process will happen more swiftly in a hotter environment.  However, the other element in the equation is acidity – a vine uses acidity to breathe as well, and in heat the acidity levels in a grape will therefore drop, whilst the grape continues to accumulate sugar.  This is where it can all go wrong, as it’s the precarious balance between ripeness, sugars, and acidity is the key to a great quality wine – this is where the viticulturist and winemakers’ skills really come into full force… to tread that knife-edge to ensure the optimum balance between the two. It’s then down to the further skills of the winemaker to ensure that the grapes are picked at precisely the right time and fermented at just the right temperature to get the very best out of them.

    In cool climate regions, there’s a longer growing season, so that the grapes can fully mature at a slower, and less extreme pace; it’s also easier to keep that vital balance between the two key components of acidity and sugar.  Take Argentina for example – in the hot, relatively flat vineyards of some Mendoza regions, the sturdy Malbec ripens to perfection, offering big, gutsy, super-ripe fruit flavours.  However up in the foothills of the mountains, in an area called Tupungato, they are producing fabulous wines from the Cabernet Franc grape, a more delicate grape, that thrives in the relative coolness of the Loire Valley; and deep south in Patagonia, Pinot Noir and lighter style Cabernets are thriving.

    Confused?  Generally speaking, ‘cool climate’ wines have more restraint, higher acidity and freshness and often lower alcohol levels – they have an elegance, and a nervy edge. Sicily is an interesting example – for years the world-famous Planeta family have been showcasing stellar wines from their vineyards in western Sicily, a hot sunny area, where they manage to make super-fresh styles, by careful harvesting and fermentation.  Now, they’re experimenting with grapes grown high up on the slopes of Mount Etna, where the cooler nighttime temperatures will lead to fresher, livelier styles.

    As a simple rule of thumb, many red grapes need lots of heat, lots of sunshine to ripen properly; plant Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec in the northern extremes of wine producing regions, where you get freezing cold winters, and relatively cool summers, and you’re going to end up with thin, green, sappy and acidic wines.  Similarly take the more temperamental, high-maintenance Riesling and Pinot Noir grapes, who crave the cooler climate, and plant them in blazing heat, and you’ll end up with a load of sugary, dull, and flabby grape juice, with just about all varietal character destroyed.

    Kooyong Ferrous Pinot Noir Mornington PeninsulaSauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Noir, are three grape varieties that love fresher climates and this is where they thrive.  The cool, continental climate of world-famous Marlborough, on New Zealand’s south Island, such as the appropriately named Frost Pocket Sauvignon Blanc, is a clear case in point; similarly from the most southerly vineyards in the world, Carrick Unravelled Pinot Noir, is a sublime example of Pinot Noir at its best, as is the world famous Kooyong Ferrous Pinot Noir, from Mornington Peninsula.  Sauvignon de Touraine, Domaine de PierreThe Loire produces the delicately delicious Sauvignon De Touraine Saint Pierre, whilst the scenic, high hills of Austria and Germany turn out world class Rieslings, such as Knipser Johannishof Riesling and Machherdnl Gruner Veltliner.

    Cooler parts of Australia are also famous for their cool climate Riesling, such as Adelaide Hills and Clare Valley, from where hails the super-fresh, lime zest fragrant Skillogalee Riesling.

    Chardonnay is a bit of a chameleon and can cope better than some grapes in the heat, although it’s at its best in cooler conditions, where the pure flavours of the grape really shine – try Limoux Chardonnay, produced in the airy hills high above the hot Languedoc region, or Chardonnay in its coolest guise, in the form of Chablis.  In conjunction with the thin-skinned Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, it produces highly acidic still wines

    Bogle Viognier Clarksburg CaliforniaViognier and Chenin Blanc are two white grapes that work well in warmer climates, but are also very versatile.  Viognier’s natural home is the Rhone valley, where temperatures soar in Summer – it’s a fleshy, bold-flavoured and fruity wine, which also thrives well in California (try Bogle Viognier) and Australia, whilst Chenin blanc is an underrated maverick, with high natural acidity and sugar levels, which make it equally at home in the relatively cool Loire Valley, and also the hot, interior of South Africa’s Stellenbosch region.  This is a star grape that manages to balance flavour and natural acidity pretty well, as seen in the Ken Forrester Reserve Chenin Blanc, and some glorious late harvested sweet Chenins in the Loire.

    Omero Pinot Noir Willamette ValleyAs for reds, the thin-skinned and delicately perfumed, lighter Pinot Noir and Gamay prefer cooler climates.  The home of Pinot Noir is Burgundy, and it is simultaneously producing world class wines in the very far south of the Southern Hemisphere, as well as in the cooler regions of Western America, such as the Omero Pinot Noir from Oregon, and similar styles from Washington State.

    Just as some of us cope less well with the current heatwave, so it is with grapes. Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre thrive in the heat of the Southern Rhone and throughout Australia and other Southern Hemisphere hot spots, and frequently need that heat and sunshine to get them fully ripe – as does Malbec.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, those great Bordeaux stalwarts work equally well in New World countries, but, carefully made, produce their absolute best in the relatively cool region of Bordeaux.  Then again, it’s all down to the weather conditions each year, and this varies far more in Europe.

    It’s a bit of a minefield; but it needn’t be.  Cooler, higher regions produce fresher, elegant, more restrained wines, with good acid balance.  Red grapes that need sunshine and heat cope with the blast of high temperatures with relative ease – it’s then down to the skill of the winemaker to keep that perfect balance, between opulence, richness, high alcohol levels, yet some restraint and freshness.

    The landscape of where grapes are grown, and in which climate is continually changing, as viticulturists and winemakers experiment... and we’re the lucky ones who get to taste and enjoy the benefits of all these new ventures.

     By Angela Mount

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