In a time where global warming is leading to increasing temperatures in wine regions around the world (despite what a certain US president may say) it is perhaps not surprising that so-called cool climate regions are getting more and more attention. In the southern hemisphere vineyards are being planted ever further south and here in the UK every day seems to bring a new article about the popularity of English sparkling wine and how many new vineyards are being planted.
But of course cool climates aren’t just found at high latitudes. Wine regions can also benefit from cooling influences by proximity to the ocean or large bodies of water – think of the likes of Sonoma, Elgin or Galicia. Alternatively, temperatures can be moderated by the third major cooling effect: altitude. The general rule of thumb is that for every 100m you ascend in altitude the temperature decreases by 0.65˚C. It is this final cooling influence that Sarah Ahmed recently explored in her seminar on Australian wine titled ‘Cool Climates: Altitude with Attitude’.
In a country where most of the wine regions sit between 30 and 40 degrees south (a similar latitude to southern Europe), cooling weather influences are necessary to moderate the climate and create ideal conditions for viticulture. As such, many of Australia’s wine regions sit near to the south coast where the cold Southern Ocean has a cooling influence – such as with Mornington Peninsula, Great Southern and Tasmania.
However, whilst these maritime cool climates are now well known and sought after in Australia, other winemakers and viticulturists are paying more and more attention to those regions that are cool as a result of altitude. Less than 1% of Australia’s vineyard area sits at over 600m altitude – but this is where some of Australia’s most exciting cool climate wines are now coming from with regions like Orange, Tumbarumba, Canberra and New England slowly becoming better known.
Whilst these regions are often growing the same varieties as coastal cool climate regions, there is no doubt they have a very different style. These high altitude regions in Australia are situated along the Great Dividing Range – the main mountain range in Australia that sweeps along the south east coast of the country. As well as giving altitude to these regions it also acts as a rainshadow, meaning these regions tend to be relatively dry and low in disease pressure. However, the high altitude also increases risk of frost and hail – something not associated with coastal cool climes. Large diurnal temperature ranges means these regions get hotter in the daytime than coastal regions, but also much colder at night.
This means high altitude wines tend to have a long ripening time with slow sugar accumulation giving high levels of fruit flavour intensity – but the cold nights mean the grapes retain high levels of natural acidity keeping the wines balanced and precise. In terms of red wines, high levels of UV tend to soften the texture of tannins – so although these wines have structure, the tannins tend to be fine and integrated.
Tasting through a number of wines from vineyards over 600m really underscored these stylistic characteristics. The common thread through each wine whether white, red or rosé was that of fresh acidity and medium body. The effect of altitude seems to be a certain elegance to the wine style, regardless of variety, making the wines very drinkable. As for the reds (Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Saperavi), they all had a taut tannic structure encasing the fruit – but in each case it was fine tannin, ripe rather than drying.
Here are my top picks from the tasting:
Eden Road ‘Courabyra’ Chardonnay 2015, Tumbarumba – planted at 750m.
You’d be forgiven for mistaking this for a top Chablis if tasted blind. Unoaked with taut, citrus acidity balanced by savoury, cheesy notes from 15 months aging on lees. Amazingly fresh given this has been through full malolactic fermentation with even a slight saline note. Very long, very good.
Toppers Mountain Gewurztraminer 2015, New England – planted at 900m.
New England is a region in northern New South Wales that has some of the highest vineyards in Australia, planted up to 1400m. I have to admit to not often being a major fan of Gewurztraminer, often finding them somewhat blowsy and overblown. But here the altitude has given a much more approachable style – whilst this is still rich and textured with heady notes of floral and ginger spice, a bright grapefruit-like acidity balances the wine and makes it eminently drinkable.
Tertini Pinot Noir 2015, Southern Highlands – planted at 715m
The Southern Highlands only boasts 12 wineries, all of them boutique in scale, so it is not a region you often come across. Which is a shame having tasted this characterful Pinot. A pretty, fragrant Pinot nose leads on to a spicy, concentrated palate with smoky, meaty notes and fine tannin. Elegant with vibrant acidity.
Cobaw Ridge Syrah 2012, Macedon Ranges – planted at 610m
I was really taken by this cool climate Syrah. Fragrant yet savoury in style with pepper and earthy characters along with a herbaceous undertone. Firm but fine tannin and taut acidity make this quite a serious style of Syrah that really shows its cool climate origin. Impressive.
Ballandean Estate ‘Messing About’ Saperavi 2015, Granite Belt – planted at 820m
The Granite Belt is one of Australia’s most northerly wine regions and Saperavi is a red variety from Georgia so to say this wine is unusual would be an understatement. But this is a fantastic example of how Australia can make its own style from an alternative variety. Saperavi is renowned for its very high levels of tannin, and those are certainly on show in this wine. But here that high tannin is balanced by lots of juicy, dark fruit along with a lifted herbal note and fresh acidity. The high sunlight intensity from a region at relatively low latitude (ie nearer the equator) results in that juicy fruit profile which acts to balance the high levels of tannin.
Sarah reported that Philip Shaw (a winemaker in Orange) thinks that altitudes over 600m have a ‘dramatic effect’ on wine – and this tasting certainly proved that. To me, these wines showed a focus and precision that was true regardless of specific region and variety – giving them a true sense of place. An attitude coming from altitude if you like.