Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Coolest of Cool Climates

By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team Member returned from afar

Having spent the previous four months in Tasmania, returning to the Finger Lakes a few days ago has truly been a joy.  From catching up with family to catching up with friends old and new, the only thing as rewarding has been the sudden change from winter weather to summer weather (and daylight hours) for the first time in nearly ten months.  I may grumble about the increase in temperature and the adjustment to trying to sleep in a room at 70 degrees rather than 40 degrees, but that would be the definition of missing the forest for the trees.

Despite the winter weather that took hold of Tasmania in the past month, however, my time working a vintage there has filled me with many big-picture questions that also reflect on the Finger Lakes as a wine region.  Chief amongst them is something surprisingly simple:

What do we mean when we call a wine region "cool climate?"

It seems like such an easy question.  Everyone from winemakers to wine writers to consumers throw around the term glibly and with the presumption that anyone who hears "cool climate wine region" is automatically on the same page.  Maybe everyone is on the same page and I am out on a limb here, but it seems to me that calling a region "cool climate" probably tells us little more than saying a wine is simply white or red.

My guess is that when most people refer to a wine region as "cool" they are likely, a) an aging Gen-Xer desperately trying to sound hip, b) someone making a terrible pun [guilty as charged], or c) speaking to the growing conditions that the vineyard and winery have to work with.  In the case of c) I have always thought of "cool climate" as meaning a wine region where cool conditions throughout the growing season, or in its length, result in difficulty achieving ripeness in the grapes.  This may mean flavor ripeness (basically, the grapes tasting slightly green) or physiological ripeness (acid levels being high, tannins being sharp, seeds still green, etc.), but in either case we are talking about a sub-standard amount of optimal weather for ripening.

As an example, the Finger Lakes is decidedly a cool climate wine region.  While we may justifiably celebrate the importance and beauty of acidity in our rieslings and the delicate nature of our other grapes, the challenge nearly every year is simply to deliver them to the winery ripe.  We are no stranger with the sugar man in the Finger Lakes in cold years, nor are we ever afraid of means to reduce the amount of acid in our juices right from the get go.  I always think of the classic description of winemaking in the very cool Saar region in Germany: one out of ten years resulted in a useable crop, truly winemaking on the edge.  Whether you believe in global warming or not, the Saar is now up to a successful vintage about 40% of the time, but the sentiment is the same for the Finger Lakes - this is winemaking on the edge of a knife.  When it is successful, it is precise and beautiful in a way almost unfathomable elsewhere.

Tasmania is also considered a cool climate wine region, indeed that reputation was one of the very reasons I sought out a producer on an island that otherwise only produces 1% of Australia's total wine.  When I arrived to discover that it had been one of the coolest summers in many decades and that the autumn had been wet and no better for temperature, I assumed that my Finger Lakes experience would be crucial.  "Need to add sugar or tamp down acid, Mr. Tasmanian Winemaker?  No problem!"  Not so.  Despite the coldest ripening season imaginable, one that many called a disaster, I found myself adding acid to juices by the bag.  The sugar levels came in totally fine although, full disclosure, grape juice concentrate was added to juices to bring up their sugar levels to meet the Australian consumer's (apparently very high) alcohol-by-volume assumptions for wine.

So far as I am concerned, my definition above is probably what "cool climate" should mean.  In its application, however, I wonder if it isn't becoming more of a relative term rather than a firm or absolute description.  Compared to the mainland of Australia, of course Tasmania is a cool climate - it isn't baking hot and dry!  In reality, however, Tasmania is a moderate and maritime climate.  Frost or any other threat to under-ripening are hardly concerns; acid is added to nearly all the juices as reflexively there as it would be on the mainland or California in order to control the pH and structure - if in slightly smaller quantities (forgive me the broad-brush generalizations, I know there are many spectacular exceptions).

In the end, I am not so sure I am a fan of this use of "cool climate."  Wine consumers and non-consumers alike often profess frustration with how unclear and abstract the terms used to describe wine, wineries, and regions are.  A cool climate wine region should mean something that consumers can depend on being the same for nearly all vintages, from what it means for the varieties of grapes planted, the work in the vineyard, the challenges facing the winery, and the type of wine that naturally results.  Putting Tasmania and the Finger Lakes in the same category may seem useful, but the circle has to be drawn so big for them to fit in together that it is probably useful to neither.  Both are exciting and fantastic wine regions that deserve more honest and more respect.

As always, send along any thoughts you have on the issue - even if that is only to say that it isn't actually an issue at all!

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1 comment:

  1. Very interesting read! I am an atmospheric science grad student at Cornell just starting my research...on climate and wine. You are probably aware of the many temperature sensors scattered about the Fox Run vineyards; that is the data I am starting to work with! I am looking forward to learning more and, hopefully, working with Fox Run more in the near future!