WHY I PREFER COOL-CLIMATE WHITE WINES
When French winemaker and negociant Eric Texier visited The Wine Country in the late 1990s, he commented that he prefers wines in the northernmost part of their appellations, like Chablis in Burgundy and the northern Rhone in the Rhone Valley. To him, the wines were more alive, better structured, and more food friendly than their southern counterparts.
For most wine buyers, I assume, there is awareness of the origin of wines (Napa Valley, Santa Barbara County, Chianti, Rioja), but little thought given to what the climate is like where their grapes are grown.
When grapes are grown in warmer conditions, their natural acidity goes down as the sugars go up. Conversely, grapes grown in cooler climates may lack the plushness of their warmer counterparts, but their natural acidity is usually higher, resulting in brighter and fresher-tasting wines, closer to that of fresh fruit than canned fruit.
White grapes grown in cooler climates benefit most from cooler weather because their slower ripening produces vibrancy rarely found in warmer-climate wines.
So where are these wines? In the northern hemisphere, the main cool climate wine regions are Chablis, the Loire Valley, Alsace, Savoie, Champagne in France, Alto Adige, Friuli, Trentino, Veneto and Piedmont in Italy, Vinho Verde in Portugal, Txakoli, Rias Baixas and Rueda in Spain, all white wines in Germany and Switzerland, most of the whites of Austria, the wines of Slovenia and coastal Croatia and Greece. Of course, there are littler known pockets of vineyards elsewhere in Europe where the coolness of the climate bring out bright tasting wines, perhaps without the expressiveness of their better known counterparts.
For the most part, all these regions excel in white wine production, with their red wines (if they are grown at all) playing a much more diminished role.
In the New World, it is much harder to find these kinds of white wines because, especially in California, the climate is much warmer. Winemakers here routinely add acid to their wines because their natural acidity is lacking. Sometimes they have to add water to the must because the potential alcohol will be too high to make table wines. These are particularly in need of winemaker acidification.
The latter may not bother wine drinkers who consume their wines as cocktail substitutes, but they don’t make very effective food wines, and, for me at least, they just seem to lay there in the glass like bloated flounders. Where is the freshness? Where is the energy?
New Zealand, South Africa and some of the higher elevations in the Andes produce some brilliant white wines, as do some of our North American regions in places like Michigan, Ohio, Long Island, New York’s Finger Lakes and Virginia, many growing hybrid varieties created for cooler weather we don’t see in California, and more than a few regions growing impressive Rieslings, a variety that is celebrated and ignored in equal measure.
I drink more cool climate white wines than red wines for three reasons. First is where I happen to live—Southern California—whose climate calls for refreshment more than, say, Chicago in the winter.
Second is they make great antidotes to all the heavier wines I consumed in my youth. The proof is how good a glass of Sancerre tastes after a night of heavy food and red wine, like a tangy sorbet between courses.
The third reason is their ability to transform in the glass with what I’m eating. We proved it with our annual Panzanella Fest with Italian White Wines (coming up August 5th this year), experiencing wiry, narrow-band wines blossom into fruitier versions with the vinegary, tomatoey Tuscan bread salad. (South of France rosés do a similar transformation with garlicky aïoli.) These white wines are also very good with cured meats, which most people drink with red wine with varying degrees of success. Jack McLaughlin once pointed out the function of cool-climate white wines to scrub out the fat in your mouth from salami and prosciutto, so the next bite is as delicious as the first bite. (Cool climate reds have a better shot at that than warmer climate versions.)
And the final reason I drink more cool climate whites is they are usually less expensive because they are mostly raised in tanks rather than oak barrels, which always were very costly to the production of wine.
So there you have it: cool climate white wines make better aperitifs, are usually more successful food wines, they are lighter and fresher and more energetic to drink, and they often cost way less.
We tasked Kevin Lepisto with hosting Cool-Climate Dry White Wines for Warm Summer Afternoons Tasting Saturday June 10 at The Wine Country from 1-4 p.m. for just $25, tax included. You will be able to experience for yourself the exhilarating qualities of 10 pretty exciting varieties from the places I’ve been talking about.