How Climate Affects Wine Grapes

Growing Pinot Noir in Napa Valley is like growing apples in Puerto Rico.


Like we said previously, there are many things that end up contributing to a wine’s ultimate expression — whether it’s light or full bodied, fruity, earthy, powerful or soft, and most of them live in the little, juicy miracle that is the grape. Ultimately, whatever makes up that grape will make up your wine. So what makes a grape thick skinned or thin skinned? What gives it higher sugar content? What makes the grape make the wine like it is? It all really boils down to one rarely discussed, not-so-sexy thing: climate.

Grapes, mysterious and deified though they are, are a fruit. Grown en masse, they’re a crop, just like, say, apples. Like apples, grapes grow really well in certain places under certain conditions and not so well in other places. What makes certain grapes grow well in some places and not others is the same thing that makes apples thrive in Vermont and not Puerto Rico, and something we rarely consider as it applies to our food: biological evolution.

There’s a reason why apples don’t grow in Puerto Rico: they’re not built to grow there. Mother Nature looked at apples and said, “You’re going to live in Vermont.” Apples said “Okey doke!” and got down adapting their root systems, leaf structure, color and more to make that possible. If you took an apple tree out of Vermont and tried to grow it in Puerto Rico, you’d have to do a lot of work to get it to thrive. You could fertilize the soil, irrigate the orchard, spray for bugs and molds that the trees wouldn’t be naturally suited to resist, shade the trees from the strength of the equatorial sun, and so on. Even then, the apples you did manage to force to grow probably wouldn’t be super tasty, because they wouldn’t have developed in the environment they’re biologically built to grow in, which is why we’re all much more amped to blow our money on sweet Vermont-grown Honey Crisps over generic, mealy Chinese Red Delicious any day. (It’s also part of the reason why California‘s almond farmers are in deep, deep shit.)

Good grapes make good wine, and good grapes come from their biologically matched climates.

Where a grape grows — the climate associated with the grape’s geographical homestead — is ultimately what will determine what kind of wine that grape will turn into. Things like a wine region’s average annual temperature, rainfall and humidity have more to do with the difference between Gevrey Chambertin and Willamette Valley Pinot. Some grapes grow in cool climates like Germany and Eastern France. Some grow in warm climates like Southern Italy and Australia. Those different climates influence the resulting wine such that it’s possible for you to prefer, say, Australian Shiraz over Volnay.

Even though all grapes look more or less the same — round and bunched — they’re actually little spheres of biological wonder. Long (probably a few thousand years) ago in a vineyard far away (most likely somewhere in modern-day Iran), the Mother of All Grapes existed. At some point, a genetic mutation probably occurred, spawning another grape with slightly different genetic material. The rest, as a result of genetic commingling, nomadic migratory patterns, war, empiric expansion and collapse, immigration, human tinkering for fun and profit and a whole bunch of other stuff we’ll never know about, has gotten us to where we are today — i.e., with somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 different cultivars of the vitis vinifera species growing all over the world. We know this because grape geneticists are at work unlocking vitis vinifera’s family tree one vine at a time. For example: Cabernet Sauvignon? It’s the lovechild of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Boom. Science.

All of this means that each of these thousands of little grapes has developed something specific that allows them to thrive in the respective climates in which they’ve landed or been schlepped. And, as it turns out, in most cases these traits have a lot to do with how the grape will turn into wine, because all of those genetic mutations are evolutionarily designed to help the grape do one thing: get ripe (read: sweet) enough for an animal to want to eat it, digest it, wander around and spread its seed somewhere via poo. If ripeness is the ultimate goal, then the climate in which the grape is grown — the strength of the sun, relative to latitude, elevation and atmospheric conditions — is going to determine the grape’s structure as it’s designed by nature to achieve ultimate ripeness for its climate. That structure, of the grape skins and flesh, is going to make your wine express in the way you love (or hate).

Maybe the most important takeaway here has more to do with why it’s important to drink grapes that come from where they’re supposed to come from. Remember the Puerto Rican apples? The pesticides, the fertilizers, the mealy texture? Try growing Pinot Noir in Napa Valley. Or Chardonnay in Spain. Good grapes make good wine, and good grapes come from their biologically matched climates. The next time you’re given a choice between a Sauvignon Blanc from Somewhere on Earth and an Assyrtiko from Greece, try unshackling yourself from the comfort of the familiar. Don’t fear the native grape.

Cool-Climate Wine

Thin skinned, low sugar, elegant

Cool climate is generally determined by latitude (think Germany, Chablis and the Willamette Valley), but it can also be the result of elevation, as in the case of what are often referred to as “Alpine” growing regions like France’s Jura and Boca in Northwestern Italy. In these cases, little pockets of unique climatological conditions as a result of a combination of latitude, elevation, wind patterns, etc. are referred to as “microclimates”. Whatever the magic combo, cooler-climate growing regions are usually farther away from the equator, with lower annual temperatures and more seasonal cloud cover.

The Grapes

Greatest hits: Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Gamay
B-Side: Savagnin, Grüner Veltliner, Trousseau, Dolcetto, Schiava

Grapes that grow in cool-climate regions are adapted to ripen despite the weak sunlight and cooler temperatures in which they’re growing. As such, their structure needs to allow for as much sunlight as possible to penetrate the grape and ripen the sugars in the grape’s flesh, so these grapes tend to be very thin skinned. As we’ve learned, tannin and color live in the skins of the grape, so the thinner the skins, the less surface area for potential tannin and color. Aside from the skins, cool-climate grapes don’t tend to reach the ripeness levels they might if their growing conditions were warmer, since sugars and tannins need a lot of sun to ripen fully.

The Expression

Grapes grown in cool climates tend to produce wines that are less grippy and more elegant than warm climate grapes. Lower levels of ripeness mean that the sugar content in the flesh of the grapes is also lower, which we learned earlier will make the grape juice’s potential alcohol content lower, too. Along with lower tannin, low ABV makes for wines with lighter body. Whites tend to be bright, clean and crisp with floral and orchard fruit notes. Reds can be thought of as elegant and nuanced with fine tannin, ripe red berry and herbal or floral notes.

2012 Domaine Oudin “Les Serres”


Chablis, France: From Burgundy’s most northerly AOC, a fresh, razor-sharp expression of Chardonnay to put some pep in your step.

Buy Now: $25

2013 Edmunds St John “Bone Jolly”


El Dorado County, CA: Microclimate alert! Sure, this wine hails from West Coast, but El Dorado’s elevation (around 1,000 meters), coupled with the trans-lateral, ocean-air-thieving valley it sits above makes this one of California’s coolest growing regions. Juicy and bright, from one of California’s pioneer winemakers.

Buy Now: $20

2008 Ferrando “Etichetta Nera”


Nebbiolo di Carema, Piedmont, Italy: Take the idea of elegance, ferment it, roll it around on your tongue, meditate.

Buy Now: $70

Warm-Climate Wine

Thick skinned, higher sugar, often red

Warm-climate wine regions are the regions most folks hit on vacation, and for good reason. The rolling hills of Tuscany, Napa’s wide vistas and the beaches of Southern France make for good wine and good Instagrams. In addition to being closer to the equator, warmer-climate regions are often influenced by maritime weather patterns. Their annual temperatures are higher, the sun is stronger and it’s usually blue skies all day. This is where the panoramic function on your phone guarantees capturing all the lush greenery necessary to make your friends back home jealous.

The Grapes

Greatest hits: Viognier, Malvasia, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Sangiovese, Syrah, Tempranillo, Zinfandel
B-Sides: Gros Manseng, Viura, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Cinsault, Aglianico, Nero d’Avola, Baga

Warm-climate grapes are structured to protect themselves from shriveling on the vine under the heat of the sun, so their skins are thick, thick, thick. (Oftentimes, red grapes from warm climates have skins so thick they appear black). As a result, warm climates are usually red grape territory, though hearty white varietals can thrive in the right conditions. Higher temperatures also equal sticky-sweet ripeness — think about biting into a perfectly ripe apple versus one that didn’t get full sun.

The Expression

Those thick skins often guarantee a wine with well-structured, sometimes even burly tannin. Wines from warm climates will generally have much more grip than wines from cool climates. Those ripe sugars will also usually lead to a wine with higher alcohol content, since the fermentation process can continue for longer. As far as the weight of the wine is concerned, all of this adds up to a lot more heft and power, especially when compared to cool-climate wines’ elegance and finesse. Warm-climate whites tend to be rich and lush, with ripe citrus and tropical fruit notes. The reds are deep and powerful, with spice and black-fruit notes like cherry and plum. The grapes’ ripeness will also often lend a dried fruit note to the wine, like fig or date.

2012 Montenidoli “Tradizionale”


San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy: Elisabetta Fagiuoli has been making some of Italy’s most important wines for over 50 years. You should be drinking this one.

Buy Now: $14

2013 Bedrock Wine Co. “Old Vine Zinfandel”


Sonoma Valley, California: Made by one of California’s youngest winemakers from some of California’s oldest vines. Deep, deep, deep.

Buy Now: $25

2012 Joan d’Anguera “Altaroses”


Montsant, Spain: Think of this as the beginner’s guide to Priorat — all the stuffing without the price.

Buy Now: $18

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