Sunday, 30 September 2012

Climate Change


Autumn is on the way, folks. How do I know? It's not the dark mornings, nor the falling leaves. It's not even the start of a new season of Downton Abbey. No, the tell tale sign was on our dinner table this weekend: the first bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape of the year.
It's obvious that the effect of climate on wine production is a subject people struggle, at least initially, to comprehend (I'm not talking about the MWs of the world here). This suddenly struck me as odd, given that our favourite pasttime in Britain is talking about the weather.

If you've been in the UK for the past six months, you can't have failed to notice that our summer never really got going. Some of the wettest months on record combined with desperately few hours of sunshine could easily have made for a rather miserable summer, were it not for the Jubilympic celebrations.
Dog walkers, such as myself, will also have noticed that the blackberries which usually fill our hedgerows this time of year are lacking fruit, and what little has grown lacks any kind of flavour. Just last week thee was a feature on BBC news documenting the increased price of apples here in the UK as some harvests are down by a whopping 80% on last year due to the bad weather. Grapes are a fruit much like any other, so the same weather factors will adversely affect them too.

Today though, I want to talk not about weather variations, but rather the opposite. Climate refers to an 'average' of weather over years, decades and centuries. Much as the apples in the UK have struggled to ripen due to our poor weather this year, they would be completely unsuitable to be planted much further away from the equator. For this same reason, some grapes are better suited to cooler or warmer climates.

As a rule of thumb, we find that balck grapes (those commonly assocaited with red wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz / Syrah etc) require hotter conditions than white grapes in order to fully ripen. They also have thicker skins which enable them to withstand these greater temperatures and, at the risk over simplifying things, these thicker skins lend us the greater levels of tannin in the warmer climate reds.

As the grape ripens sugar increases, acidity decreases

More sunshine also gives us better ripening, which means two things: greater levels of sugar and lower levels of acidity. More sugar means more alcohol, as this is what yeast feeds on, and anyone who has eaten fruit which isn't quite ripe will understand what an excess of acidity can do (turn your face inside out and make your eyes water!). For these reasons, wines from hotter climates tend to be higher in alcohol and lower in acidity, often with ripe, supple tannic structure. It just so happens that these are exactly the warming, comforting styles of wine we turn to when the evenings draw in.

Conversely, during the long summer days (as and when they occur), light, crisp wines (with relatively high acidity) are what we instinctively reach for. Which provides us not only with a good rule of thumb, but also a good understanding of the rationale: when the weather is hot, drink wines from cool countries; when the weather is cold, find something from somewhere hot. Not only is this a great form of escapism, the

So as the blustery autumn weather sets in, I'll chase the blues away with wines from southern France (Rhone Valley, Châteauneuf-du-Pape) and Spain (Rioja, Navarra), and turn to Californian Zinfandels and Australian Shiraz when the frost starts setting in.

What are your favourite wines for this time of year?


  1. Nice piece Will - I think you are spot on in saying that autumn starts with your first bottle of CdP ! :) Had a St Cosme CdR the other day and it felt very comforting indeed.

  2. Thanks Tom. It's raining as I write this and the CdP is looking better by the minute!

  3. Don't forget South Africa. A lot of elegance coming from the Cape, and the Rhone varieties are smashing down there right now - especially wines of the Swartland revolution.

  4. So true Martin. More to SA than just Pinotage and Chenin!

  5. It doesn't take much to tempt me to open the reds I wonder if you have any suggestions for 'wintery whites'? I feel I should offer an alternative to red to guests if pushed.

  6. Great question, Kate. Personally I'd try to follow the same guides: looking for warmer climate alternatives. Barrel fermented Chenin from S.A instead of the cool, crisp style from the Loire, for example.