Ask The Expert! You've no doubt heard these terms thrown around so today we take a look at the differences between cool climate wines and warm climate wines.
What Are the Difference Between Cool Climate and Warm Climate Wines?
You may have heard sommeliers rave about cool-climate wines, but less about warm-climate wines. But what are cool-climate and warm-climate wines? How can you tell which is which when it’s not on the label?
Wine is about geography and terroir, the location and environment in which grapes grow. The location, soil, climate, weather, and micro-climate combine to yield a singular result. Sunlight, water, and soil are the key components, with climate and weather playing supporting roles.
Let’s start with cool-climate wines using the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara Wine Country to illustrate. This AVA began in 1970 when two friends created the Sanford & Benedict vineyard.
People thought they were crazy to grow wine grapes in such a cool area, believing the grapes wouldn’t ripen enough to make good wine.
In 2021, Sta. Rita Hills is widely known for intense and sophisticated wines from wine growers and winemakers dedicated to quality.
Geography & Terroir
The Sta. Rita Hills AVA location is unique among California’s many amazing wine regions. It lies in a valley 10 miles long, surrounded on both sides by mountains. But this valley runs west to east from the Pacific Ocean, not north to south like most wine regions.
This west-east orientation channels the cool marine air and fog from the ocean through the valley, creating a microclimate within the larger, warmer Santa Ynez AVA. Grapes here stay cool in the summer heat, allowing them to ripen slowly and build depth and complexity.
Ancient marine sediments, including diatomaceous earth (fossilized shells), make up the soils. Such soils are poor for crops but magic for grapevines because they drain water well and limit excessive vine growth.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive in these conditions. The wines produced from grapes grown in this area are considered world class.
Wine enthusiasts and experts know Sta. Rita Hills as a top cool-climate region for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, rivaling the best in the world.
Grapes grown here develop perfect levels of natural acidity and good tannic structure. The resulting wines are balanced and pair well with a wide variety of food.
Cool-climate conditions help grapes preserve acidity. In wine grapes, sugar and acidity work opposite each other. As temperatures rise, grape sugars increase, and acidity decreases. The trick is finding the right balance. The cooler conditions in Sta. Rita Hills makes finding the balance easier.
You’ll find different styles of Pinot Noir here, but they tend to show floral aromas, red-fruit flavors, firm tannins, and a silky mouthfeel. Chardonnay tends to be rich, but the acidity adds energy. You won’t find flat or flabby wines here.
To illustrate warm-climate wines, we’ll look at California’s smallest AVA, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, founded in 2009.
Geography & Terroir
Happy Canyon lies at the eastern edge of Santa Barbara County where two mountain ranges intersect: the east-west range of the Sta. Rita Hills and the eastern range, which runs north and south.
The intersection of these mountain ranges allows for hot days and cool nights. Intense heat stays in the valley during the day, but overnight, cool Pacific Ocean air currents move in, providing vines a respite from the heat.
Happy Canyon’s temperatures are the highest in the county. With plenty of heat and sunshine, the Bordeaux grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot thrive here. Because the vineyards sit high on the mountainside, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc do well despite the heat.
Poor soils of sand, clay, and loam dotted with small rocks add minerality and keep yields low.
The dramatic daily diurnal temperature changes plus the soil composition result in deeply concentrated wines. The alternating temperatures between the heat of the day and the cool nights allow complex flavor compounds to develop slowly.
Wine enthusiasts and experts know Happy Canyon as a top warm-climate region for Bordeaux varietals, rivaling the best California has to offer. Here you’ll find single varietal wines from each of the Bordeaux grapes plus Bordeaux blends.
The wines from Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara rival Napa Valley for complexity and richness, but are still relatively unknown. This is why these wines sell at a fraction of the price of their Northern California peers.
While Napa’s wines are lush and fruit-forward, Happy Canyon wines, while ripe and full, have an elegant character with a bit of earthiness. The area’s native landscape imparts Provence-style herbal notes to the wine. Grapes from Happy Canyon maintain natural acidity and the structure needed for long-aging.
Syrah, a Cool-Climate and Warm-Climate Grape
Syrah has found a home in Santa Barbara Wine Country.
When Bob Lindquist planted some of the first cool climate Syrah at the Bien Nacido vineyard in Santa Maria in 1997, people thought it wouldn’t ripen. Cool climate Syrah is now widely enjoyed as a food friendly wine with delicious cranberry and bright raspberry flavors.
Some winemakers plant Syrah in the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley for a cool-climate style. These wines often exhibit a “lean, taut, style that has lip-smacking acidity and mouth puckering qualities.”
Other winemakers planted Syrah in the Santa Ynez Valley and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara for a warm-climate style. These wines often exhibit bacon fat, plush blackberry, and black pepper spice.
Each style appeals to different people at different times, especially when pairing with food. This is part of the joy and adventure of wine.
To learn more about the differences in these styles and the distinct micro-climates of the appellations, plan a visit to Santa Barbara Wine Country!
Thanks again to winemaker Greg Martellotto of Martellotto Winery for his answer to the question: What's the Difference Between Cool Climate and Warm Climate Wine?
Looking for more answers to your burning questions? You can find the full Ask The Expert series here!