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Anson on Thursday: Cool climate wine hunting

Cool climate wine is heading mainstream in 2016 as winemakers in different countries share their learning, writes Jane Anson - even if no one can quite agree on what the term means.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the cartoon that’s doing the rounds this month, where a man is reclining in an armchair with a glass of wine. His wife is standing off to one side, looking a little annoyed and saying, ‘I thought you were having a dry January?’. To which he replies: ‘I am. This is Sauvignon Blanc’.

I’m with the man in the armchair. No smug pronouncements of renouncing all known toxins. Drinking virtuously is surely the only way to go this month. And luckily there is a whole raft of wines that can give you an honourable start to 2016; just search out the cool climates.

This is a particularly good year to get acquainted with cool climate wines, as May sees the ninth edition of the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium coming to Brighton, England.

Cool climate wine: From zero to hero

This symposium was first held in 1984, when the very idea of cool climate wine was largely seen as an obstacle standing between the winemaker and full ripening of his or her grapes. Sadly the organisers no longer have the programmes for the first conferences (held in those pre-digital footprint days) but we can be assured they looked frequently at the best hybrid varieties to grow.

Today, the idea of cool climate is seen as an asset, even a lifeline in some traditional producer countries that are facing increasing water shortages and droughts.

Winemakers everywhere from Australia to Argentina to Spain are heading upwards in altitude or shifting closer to ocean breezes to search out cool climate spots, and those who suffered from cool climates before (notably the English wine producers) are suddenly feeling happier about their lot.

What does cool climate wine mean?

As the term grows in allure and marketing appeal (google ‘cool climate wine’ and you get 3.38m results), it’s worth remembering that there are no guidelines establishing what cool climate means.

You’ll find it hard to locate a technical definition that refers to days in the growing season below a certain temperature, and cool climate is not one of the official categories of the Köppen classification that ranges from Tropical to Polar.

Like ‘old vines’ and ‘natural wine’, one man’s cool climate is another man’s beach holiday.

The Brighton Symposium describes cool climate as locations where the weather ‘limits grape ripening and offers the threat of serious damage to the vine in winter’. More poetically, it refers to wines that ‘teeter on the cusp of ripeness… where minerality has a chance to shine through and not be overshadowed by ripe fruit’. Both things mean not only finesse and elegance but almost invariably lower alcohol levels, to bring us back to dry(ish) January.

Prediction: Cool climate wines to go mainstream in 2016

If I’m going to make one prediction for 2016, I would suggest that the rise of cool climate wines is likely to further spill over into influencing mainstream wine styles, even those from non-cool climate regions.

It is already happening, but I expect the trend to speed up. Among my favourite wines over Christmas were some Alsace Rieslings made by a young winemaker called Julien Schaal. I tried three of his Grands Crus Rieslings (he makes nine); Rosacker ‘les Roches Calcaires’, Kastelberg ‘les Schistes Bleus’ and the hugely intense and focused Rangen de Thann.

All 2013 vintage, all presented in decidedly sleek bottles with simple labelling, and none straying over 5g/l residual sugar (in fact two were bone dry), made from grapes that he sources from individual terroirs between Molsheim and Marlenheim.

This is unusual in Alsace Rieslings, where residual sugar is still bafflingly common and I called Schaal up a few days later to find out more about why and how he makes this style.

It turned out that he is a cool climate wine producer (and devotee) in South Africa, where he has been making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in partnership with Gordon Newton Johnson for almost 14 years. The grapes that he sources in South Africa come from Elgin, the Cape’s coolest viticultural area, together with Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Walker Bay, both also strongly influenced by the Atlantic Ocean or by altitude, with temperatures often a full 10 degrees cooler than Paarl.

South African influence on Alsace

‘When I first drank my Alsace Rieslings with friends in South Africa, they would be put off by how sweet they were,’ he tells me. ‘I had hardly noticed to be honest, but the clarity of flavours and intensity that we were getting in Elgin made me rethink my entire process back in France.

‘Today I work more closely on the lees to fatten up the wine rather than leave residual sugar. It is usual in Alsace to leave wines on the lees for nine months, but we tend to rack the wine, and instead work the lees separately, putting them into a large glass jar at 20°C and stirring regularly to release the mannoproteins that are found in the walls of the yeast cells.

‘After three weeks the lees become creamy and when we put them back into the wine (and leave to settle), they give roundness and mouthfeel without sweetness.’

Schaal is the first generation of his family to make Alsace wines, working in partnership with Olivier Biecher and now Sophie Bollaert. His grandfather grew tobacco but Schaal chose to head into wine through passion, working his first harvest in 1999 and apprenticing with the Brunier family in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Lebanon.

His grandfather did prove instrumental to his career however – the first grapes he ever bought in South Africa were purchased in 2003 with €10,000 his grandfather gave him to buy a car. A few months later and he still didn’t have a car, but he did have his start in the cool climate wine business… and a first row seat onto the pleasures that this style can bring.

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