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  • Writer's pictureJack Costa

The Hot Topic of Hot Climate Wine

Updated: Jun 6

If you are a “go big or go home” person who loves pitch-black coffee, rich ragu bolognese pasta, or a full and fruity porter beer, then warm climate wines might be for you. In general, warm climate wines are bigger, bolder, richer, and fruitier than their cool climate counterparts. If you are a “subtle is more” kind of person who enjoys green tea and sushi, maybe cooler-climate wine is up your alley. 

But why are cool and warm climate wines taste so distinctly different?

Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards, a cooler climate growing region of Southern Oregon

Impact on Sugar & Acidity

In warm climates, grapes have the potential to accumulate more sugar throughout the growing season. This, of course, is a statement straight from Captain Obvious. What is not as obvious, however, is what else warmer climates do to the grapes’ internal chemistry.

Increased sugar accumulation within the berries cause two major changes to occur. First, the significantly higher levels of fermentable sugar in these grapes allow the finished wine to have potentially higher levels of alcohol (increased sugar = increased alcohol). As a result, wines made with higher alcohol create a wine with a much bigger and bolder mouthfeel

Secondly, with an increase of fermentable sugars comes a decrease in the grapes’ acidity levels through the dilution and break down of the acids inside the berries. Consequently, the lower acidity can diminish the crispness of the wine, causing it to become flabby and flat, similar to a five-day-old Coca-Cola. 

Cool climate note: wines driven by acidity and less alcohol are generally better for aging. Not only does acidity preserve the vibrancy and freshness of a wine, but it also acts as an antioxidant that contributes to a wine's longevity. Cabernet Sauvignon with an ABV of 13.5% could potentially age decades longer than a wine with 15% ABV. 

Vineyard in Idaho with mountains in the background
Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Idaho... A hot growing region with wines marked by elevated alcohol levels.

Warm Climate vs. Cool Climate Flavors

Different compounds will form and evolve when the fruit is allowed to extensively mature on the vine. Because these grapes can be picked at a higher level of ripeness than cool climate fruit, this results in wines that are deep, ripe, fruity, and jammy, with darker berry flavors like blueberry and blackberry. For whites, these tasting notes include apricot, ripe peach, and tangerine. In all, these wines can be much more rounded, and sometimes more rustic, than their cool climate counterparts which tend to be more tart and floral.

Because cooler climates yield lower alcohol and higher acidity, the fruit tones in red wines are brighter, ranging from tart cherries, strawberries, and sometimes wet earth. White wines often showcase flavors of tart green apple, grapefruit, green tea, lemon, and lime. 

Stylistic Flexibility

Compared to cool climates, warm climates offer winemakers more flexibility when deciding the style of wine they wish to create. In warm climates, winemakers can either choose to harvest grapes at minimum ripeness levels to achieve lower alcohol and higher acidity wines, or they can extend the hang time of the fruit on the vines to develop richer, more concentrated flavors and alcohol levels while reducing acidity. Cool climate winemakers don’t have this luxury; they might struggle to simply reach the minimum sugar ripeness levels to make wine. 

In the United States, wines exceeding 14% ABV are allowed a leeway of 1% more or less than what is indicated on the label. This means a 14% ABV wine could be 13% or 15% ABV.

Warm Climate Grape Varieties

In warm climates, you’ll find that red grape varieties generally outnumber white varieties. This is mostly due to many white wines requiring higher acidity to be properly balanced. Additionally, you won’t find many early-ripening grapes like Gamay, Pinot Noir, or Muller-Thurgau in these warm-growing regions (there are some exceptions.) With these varieties, the fruit can reach sugar ripeness well before it has sufficient time to phenologically ripen (tannins and color) and reach full flavor development. When varieties like these ripen too fast, flavors can’t develop fully, making the wine taste diluted, incomplete, and uninteresting.

Note: Not everything is black and white in winemaking and climate. A more nuanced look at the subject would reveal that in reality, grape growing zones range hot, warm, intermediate, and cool, with still more crossover regions straddling one and another. Think about these crossovers as "Goldilocks" zones; not too hot, not too cool. It’s in these climates, Oregon’s Umpqua Valley for example, that you can grow a cool climate variety like Pinot Noir and Grenache without over-ripening or under-ripening the fruit.

Vineyard in eastern Washington State
Riesling vines in Prosser Washington, a warm growing area known for robust red wines.

Warm Climate Growing Regions

Ribera del Duero (Spain): Home to Vega Sicilia, one of Spain’s leading producers of premium Tempranillo, the Ribera del Duero is renowned for crafting wines with a solid structure and deep flavors, hallmarks of warm climate wines. 

Barossa Valley (Australia): Syrah (the Aussies call it Shiraz) is the leader here, followed by the GSM blends. These wines have savory dark fruit, baking spices, and dried berries. Verging on the hotter end of the spectrum, Barossa offers great examples of what warm climate wines are all about. 

Umpqua & Rogue Valley- Southern Oregon (USA): While much of Oregon’s Willamette Valley is suitable for cool climate varieties, regions of the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys are optimal for warm climate varieties. Tempranillo, Syrah, Viognier and Malbec are great examples of Oregonian warm-climate wines. 

The Southern Rhône (France): Here you will find as many wines as you will find diverse geological and climatic factors. In the Southern Rhone, the famous GSM blend (Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre) rules all. 

Lewis and Clark Valley- Idaho (USA): It’s new. It's warm. It's known for its famous potatoes. Yes, ladies and gentlemen...Idaho. Worthy of recognition alongside any of the wine regions on this list, Idaho’s winemakers are revealing the state's remarkable potential as a premier wine-growing region. 

Mendoza (Argentina): Last but not least, Argentina! Warm, maybe even hot, this region has been producing distinctly ripe, rich, and juicy examples of warm climate wines, of which Malbec is the most famous.

Cool Climate Growing Regions

Burgundy (France): Renowned for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines, this region is marked by cooler temperatures and slower ripening. These wines are delicate, yet ageable.

Champagne (France): Famous for its sparkling wines, this cold climate is essential to create to the high acidity and crispness needed for crafting quality bubbles.

Old Mission Peninsula- Michigan (USA): Situated in the northern part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, the surrounding water warms the air in such a way that it becomes possible to ripen and craft cool-climate Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Gamay. 

Alsace (France): Situated in northeastern France, Alsace is known for its aromatic white wines, specializing primarily in Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris. The region's cool climate preserves the natural acidity of the grapes, making for very zesty and food-friendly wines.

Finger Lakes (USA): Located in upstate New York, the Finger Lakes region is known for its distinct New World Riesling and fresh Cabernet Franc. 

Marlborough (New Zealand): The New World capital of Sauvignon Blanc is characterized by intense citrus and tropical fruit flavors. The region’s cool climate and maritime influence help retain the grape's natural acidity.

Which Side of the Grape Divide? 

If you like rich, big, hardy foods, warm-climate wines might be your cup of tea (or wine). Warm climate wines offer an abundance of variety while still holding their signature flavors, texture, and overall sense of place (terroir). Those cool climate wines, however, offer a freshness and vibrancy that warmer-climate wines struggle to emulate.The next time you find yourself at the local grocery store, grab a bottle or two from a warm and cool climate region and compare them. You will like some more than others, and the only way to find the wines you like is by tasting them!

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