It’s cool to be cool but I wonder how many know exactly what is meant by cool climate wines? It puzzles me because since local producers have been chasing the sort of area that will produce them, I’ve rarely been convinced by the results.
Thanks to a recent eureka moment – more of which further on – some research seemed a good idea. If the homework should have come first, know my life isn’t always logically ordered, especially at this time of year
First stop, as usual, was Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion. Here, listed under cool climate viticulture, we learn: ‘cool climate viticulture and warm climate viticulture, are indefinite terms, depending on the speaker’s or writer’s viewpoint.’ Not very helpful but just below, and more encouragingly, Robinson writes; ‘Major areas of cool climate viticulture would certainly include …..’ the most southern vineyards of Chile and South Africa.’ So we do have the official nod of the possibility of making such wines.
Then, as to suitable varieties, ‘The distinguishing characteristic of cool viticultural climates is that they will regularly ripen only early-maturing grape varieties such as …’ As one might expect, chardonnay and pinot noir are included, but not shiraz, which is what I’m interested in – as you find out a little later – that variety falls under intermediate climate, as it’s a mid-season ripener.
For a more locally based opinion, I asked Richard Kershaw MW, now based in Elgin where he is making cool climate chardonnay and … shiraz. I haven’t tasted them but the launch is promised later this year; my anticipation is keen.
Basically, he says a cool climate induces slower ripening, allowing the fruit to develop ‘more characteristics and achieve physiological ripeness more gradually with lower sugar levels and consequently lower alcohols.’ He details many provisos with regard to the site to achieve best results, but does say the hand of man (and woman) is the ultimate determinant. Success is unlikely without correct canopy management and viticultural husbandry.
But if good viticultural practices are important, so are winemaking practices and, in my experience, these are affected as much by attitude as they are by knowledge.
The Oxford Companion gives only a brief description of the wines from cool climates: ‘fresh, delicate and aromatic’, but what’s difficult to understand about that? For anyone who has drunk a lot of northern Rhône wines (I’m lucky but am always seeking to up my experience) there are many which are fresh, delicate and aromatic, even if these are restricted to the more traditional wines without an overload of new oak. Clape Cornas is a compelling example.
But while we are seeing more supple, less extracted South African shirazes, the tannins themselves finer and oaking less generously new, deep colour and a degree of ripeness that provides monotone rather than complexity remain far too prevalent (what is it about the notion that a paler colour equals weedy, unflavourful wines?) Of course there are exceptions.
Da capo; attitude coupled with knowledge is key. Winemakers (well many of them) appear to be slowly getting their heads and hearts around pinot noir; there are even pinots of wonderfully translucent colour, a tint rather than a smudge. And the South African public is accepting of such wines.
I hope they’ll be as accepting of the Sijnn Syrah 2011; this is the wine that captivated me with its cool climate delicacy, freshness and aromatics. Sijnn Wines (pronounced Seine or sane, depending on whether you’re French or English) is David Trafford’s pioneering project begun in 2004 near Malagas close to the mouth of the Breede River. The soil, as the photo and label illustrate, is stony and poor; the wine has somehow rejoiced in the vines’ struggle. It is dark but translucent rather than dense; the aromatics, like a kaleidoscope, for ever changing; there is no sense of assault yet there is firmness and freshness and layers of flavour – with none of oak. It is very much a syrah that makes you smile and come back for more.