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There’s nothing like a good back story. Your favorite characters come alive through the eyes of their childhood. What made them who they are today? How did they become the complex, intricate person you know and love? People are products of their environment and as it turns out, wine is not so different. You’re probably thinking I’ve gone round the bend, but stay with me here! To understand a great wine we must go back to its very beginning as a tiny cluster of grapes. We must see what it lived through, how it was influenced, what factors made it what it is today. And if the wine is our heroine, then the grape is its metaphorical younger self. This makes the vine its childhood and Terroir, its origin story.
Terr-what now? You’re probably thinking, wow that was a lot of intro just to get to Terroir. My long windedness aside (because I know deep down you love it when I’m a poetic Pearl), Terroir is a word that in fact does need some introduction. Though this term is widely used within the wine community, few know its actual meaning. Of French origin (with a literal meaning of Soil, Region, or Land), Terroir has come to encompass the complete environmental surroundings of the vine. This includes the climate, the soil, and the terrain. What effect does this have on the wine and how does it differ from region to region? Let’s delve into one aspect of Terroir to see its effect on our wine: Climate.
A Collection of Climates. The climate of a region is one of the most influential aspects of Terroir. Because of climate, two different regions growing the same varietal can produce different results. For instance, a chardonnay from California can have extremely different characteristics from a Chardonnay made in France, and we have climate to thank for this.
Most sources will tell you climate is made up of two categories: Warm Climate and Cool Climate. The answer is actually slightly more complicated. Climate can encompass temperature, but also exposure to the elements such as wind, rain, and sun.
Tricky Temperatures. Grapes grown in warmer regions, such as California and South Africa, see a gradual drop in temperature from the summer to the fall. Thus they have the chance to fully ripen, allowing for more natural sugars but less natural acidity. This leads to a higher amount of sugar consumption during the fermentation process which in turn produces higher alcohol content. This climate tends to produce fuller bodied wines well (think Cabernet and Syrah). Cooler climates, i.e. Oregon and Germany, have a rapid drop in temperature which can stunt the ripening process. This produces wines with a more tart and acidic nature that tends to be lighter bodied (think Pinot Noir and Riesling). The key is to avoid extremes. According to my buddy at Allora Vineyards, a great growing climate is long moderately warm days with slightly cooler nights. Again it seems, just like people, grapes need a consistent environment to grow properly (the comparisons are endless folks.)
Seems simple, but wait there’s more. You also have to factor in Micro-Climates. Micro-climates are everywhere. San Francisco is considered a micro-climate. It’s surrounded by warmer pockets but due to the winds and the fog exposure from the bay keeps a cooler temperature and produces, among other varietals, an excellent pinot. Again, my buddy Chris tells me, the whole region of Northern Cali is one micro-climate after another, adding to the diversity of the wines found there.
Let’s complicate it a little further. Each year can see warmer or cooler temperatures depending on the weather patterns, changing a wine’s nature from vintage to vintage. You’ve probably heard one of your wine snob, err I mean, well-educated wine friends make a comment about 2007 being a great vintage year, maybe even mentioning the harvest report (seriously wine dude, who reads the harvest report?). A good portion of that has to do with the temperature that year. It may also have something to do with rainfall.
The Right Amount of Rain. This is where gets really fascinating guys. Rain makes a huge difference. Not enough rain and the vines won’t survive. With rain also comes cloud cover, which helps to moderate the temperature and control sun exposure. But as with all things, balance is crucial. Too much rain, especially right before harvest, and the drops seep into the vines, diluting the sugar levels. It can also cause problems such as millerandage, or immature grapes (I dated a few guys that suffered from millerangade, am I right ladies?). Too much rainfall can also cause excess nitrogen in the soil and produce more foliage than fruit on the vines.
Forget “Earth Wind and Fire”; Give me “Sun, Wind and Fog”! The environmental effects are just endless. Without enough sunlight, sugar levels cannot properly develop in the grape. Sunlight also increases the tannin content. Too much sunlight however, especially around harvest, can create an imbalance in the sugar levels.
The right amount of fog and wind exposure helps to moderate temperatures and slow the ripening process (some wineries even use wind machines). Too much wind, however, can be damaging. And don’t even get me started on Humidity! Humidity can cause diseases, but have you ever heard of botrytis cinerea? Or maybe you’ve heard it referred to as “Noble Rot.” Fear not, there’s a blog about it in your future. Fascinating stuff!
This is just the tip of the iceberg, folks! Our little grape cluster has survived the temperature, sun, fog, wind, and rain, but how will he stand up against his next enemy: Soil! Will he withstand the pressure of growing on unsteady terrain? (In case it’s not apparent, I’m doing a superhero bit here. It’s supposed to tie in the origin story idea from the beginning of the article… you get it, let’s move on.)Tune in next week to see how our graped crusader survives!
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