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Climate, elevation keys to wine styles

Climate, elevation keys to wine styles

Finding a wine fitting your taste is not only a challenge for the enthusiast, but also connoisseurs. While there are many factors that determine wine styles, the vast diversity of the world’s climate and thousands of wine grapes growing across the globe bring the most variety in the taste and body style.

Climate describes what weather conditions (temperatures, rainfall, sunshine) are expected in a typical year. Climates suitable for wine production are generally divided into hot and cool climates. Broadly speaking, a region’s climate is determined by the latitude or, more simply, how close it is to the equator. The closer a region is to the equator, the hotter the climate: Think of South Africa versus Germany.

Elevation also has an influence. A region at high elevation will have a cooler climate than one closer to sea level even if they share the same latitude. The oceans also influence a wine region, depending on the temperature of the water. Consider the warm ocean current of Western Europe, and many wine regions of California, Chile and South Africa are cooled by cold ocean currents.

A general rule: Hot climate wines will generally be higher in alcohol, fuller body, with more tannin and less acidity. Cooler climate wines will generally have less alcohol, lighter body and more acidity.

Hot/warm climate regions — Argentina, Australia, southern Italy, California, central Spain, central Portugal and Southern France.


  • 2015 Pascual Toso Malbec Mendoza, Argentina (about $15 retail)


  • 2015 Penfolds Bin 28 Shiraz, Australia (about $32 retail)

Cool climate regions — Oregon, Washington state, New Zealand, Northern France, Germany


  • 2015 Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewurztraminer, Washington (about $12 retail)


  • 2015 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand (about $33 retail)
Wine production insight boosts experience

Wine production insight boosts experience

Discussions about wine production and all of its technical components may be a bit boring for most of us. But a better understanding about what goes into wine, as well as where and how it is made, will not only help you decipher wine labels but also aid in evaluating potential wines to enjoy.

The first step to understanding the wine is to identify the grape variety from which it is made. With the exception of many French labels, most wines are labeled with the grape variety along with the brand. (French wines are often identified by region, with specific regions being known for producing certain grapes or styles.) Of course, not all chardonnays will taste exactly the same, but they will have similar flavor profiles. Once you know the grape and the flavors, you can better understand what type of wine is in the bottle.

Who produces the wine also makes a difference. If a company is producing thousands of barrels using high-tech equipment versus a small family winery with only a few hundred barrels, the outcome will be different. I always use cheese as a comparison. Consider the difference in a supermarket brand cheese versus a locally produced small batch cheese.

Where the grape is grown and what goes on in the vineyard is the next key. The climate — hot versus cool — determines style. Hot areas usually grow grapes that are riper, richer and more full-bodied. Grapes grown in cool areas generally will be lighter-bodied and produce wine lower in alcohol content. Also influencing the wine taste is crop size, age of the vines, when the grapes are harvested, and even how much spraying is done and the pesticides used.

Another factor in determining taste is whether the winemaker used massive stainless steel or small hand-crafted, new oak barrels to store the wines.

It’s also important to keep in mind that most of these factors will be reflected in the price. A wine mass-produced and brought to market quickly will be cheaper than one that is more elaborately produced and aged.


  • 2014 Chamisal Vineyards Stainless Chardonnay, California (about $16 retail)


  • 2013 Alexander Valley Schoolhouse Reserve Cabernet, California (about $41 retail)
Red grapes shine in plenty of wines

Red grapes shine in plenty of wines

If we judged wine based on what we see on the shelves at wine shops it would seem there are very few red grape varieties worth drinking. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir dominate the offerings in stores and on restaurant wine lists. And because of this strong presence many wine drinkers have a mistaken impression that the world’s other red grapes are inferior in quality and flavor. The good news is this simply isn’t true. There are many other red wines to explore.

Barbera is Italy’s second biggest variety but seems to get overlooked in the wine market. Because it’s a late ripener it can be very tart and astringent. But with careful harvesting it makes wines with lovely sweet plum and cherry flavors. It can be aged but the best time for drinking is when it is fresh and the most recent vintage.

Gamay is best known as the grape behind the famed Beaujolais wines of France. It can be made into a full-bodied wine but it really shines as the star of the famous Beaujolais Nouveau. Each year this wine is bottled and on retail shelves within months of production. This red wine is intended to be consumed within a year of bottling. It is truly a white-wine drinker’s bridge to trying red wines with its light taste of strawberries, raspberries and ripe cherries.

Pinotage is South Africa’s very own red variety. It’s a cross between cinsault and pinot noir. The name is misleading because most people assume it will have taste similar to pinot noir but oddly its taste is more in line with shiraz. In the past this wine was overproduced and had a bad reputation, but its image is changing. At its best it is a deeply colored red wine with layers of bold flavors of licorice, blackberry and plum.

Cabernet franc suffers from comparison to cabernet sauvignon. It generally shows up as a blending partner in Bordeaux wines. It is defined with its strong trait of perfume where even a drop added to a blend can change an entire wine’s aroma and flavors. It generally has fragrant aromas of black cherry and chocolate. Mostly seen in blends, there are a few brilliant bottles out there to explore this enticing wine.

Baga is a Portuguese grape, and its name meaning “berry” is an accurate description of this grape. It is a small thick-skinned grape that brings a tannic structure. If you like medium-bodied red wines similar to pinot noir and nebbiolo you will enjoy this wine.


  • 2014 Steller Organics Pinotage, South Africa (about $10 retail)


  • 2014 Louis Jadot Beaujolais, France (about $18 retail)
Sancerre’s grapes create a finer wine

Sancerre’s grapes create a finer wine

If you’ve had sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, California or Chile and then tried a bottle from France’s Sancerre region, it quickly becomes clear that not all sauvignon blanc grapes are created equal. When I say “equal,” I don’t mean quality (that’s dependent on the producer), but style. All of these regions produce exceptional styles of this grape, but there is just something exceptionally appealing about the elegant, flinty style of Sancerre’s grapes.

Sancerre is a wine but also a place on the eastern end of the Loire Valley of France. The valley starts in the west at the Atlantic Ocean and extends east through Anjou, Saumur and Touraine, reaching the heart of central France.

As with all terroir-driven wines, the Loire Valley region showcases ideal conditions for growing sauvignon blanc, with its unique soils and semi-continental climate. This region’s soil is very specific. The area comprises three subtypes of soil, evoking distinct characteristics in the wine’s flavors. The Silex or flinty soil gives wine a gunflint, smoke and mineral component. Kimmeridgian marl (a chalky clay soil) offers distinct fruit and higher acidity, while Oxforidan limestone (larger pieces of gravel) provide the wines’ delicate and perfumed aromas.

Compared to other sauvignon blancs, I consider Sancerre one of elegance with its restrained style. The grape is known for its racing acidity, but in Sancerre styles you’ll find refreshing aromas and tastes of fresh herbs, grapefruit, lime peel and pear, to name a few.

Sancerre wines fall into our Splurge category. For Value ($15 or less) options that are similar, consider these less famous regions just west of Sancerre — Menetou-Salon, Reuilly and Quincy.

  • 2014 Signature de Loire Sancerre, France (about $19 retail)
  • 2014 Sauvion Sancerre, France (about $34 retail)
  • 2014 Domaine Serge Laporte Sancerre, France (about $27 retail)
  • 2014 Chateau de Sancerre, France (about $27 retail)
  • 2014 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre, France (about $29 retail)

More to explore outside the top four

It’s astounding to think there are more than 8,000 known grape varieties planted around the world. But of the 8,000, only about 1,000 are grown for winemaking. The others are used for table grapes or raisins.

With more than 1,000 wine grapes available, we can’t help but ponder why only a few familiar varietals make it onto our retail shelves. While chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon , merlot and pinot noir are considered household names, where are the other 996 choices?

If you tasted eastern Romanian wine not intended for the export market, you would easily understand why international wine drinkers’ demanding palates quickly weed out some grape varieties. But there are many undiscovered stars waiting to be found and savored.

If you’re interested in finding less familiar grape varieties, consider these delightful wines. Who knows, with more wine drinkers willing to explore we could possibly see the chardonnay shelf space threatened by a worldwide range of unique and distinctive wines.


  • 2008 Concha Y Toro Xplorador Carmenere, Chile (about $11 retail)
  • 2009 Pine Ridge Winery Viognier/Chenin Blanc, California (about $14 retail)
  • 2008 Layer Cake Malbec, Australia (about $22 retail)


  • 2005 Alexander Valley Alexander School Primitivo,California (about $52 retail)
  • 2007 Abadia San Campio Albarino, Spain (about $26 retail)
  • 2008 Bouchaine Pinot Meunier, California (about $50 retail)
  • 2008 Jacuzzi Wines Primitivo, California (about $25 retail)
  • 2008 Adelsheim Tocai Friulano , Oregon (about $30 retail)