Playing It Cool

You know how winos sometimes say they can taste ‘sunshine’ in the glass? This isn’t just wine-soaked prose; by tasting alone you can say a lot about the climatic conditions of a vineyard.

The International Cool Climate Wine Symposium takes place every year, in different countries. The conference brings together the world's leading producers and experts in cool climate viticulture, winemaking, research and promotion. They define cool climates as ‘locations where the weather limits grape ripening and offers the threat of serious damage to the vine in winter … wines that teeter on the cusp of ripeness, where minerality has a chance to shine through and not be overshadowed by ripe fruit’. 

They also note that the cooler the climate, the more important the vineyard planning, design, viticulture management and winemaking need to be.

“Fruit is the protagonist of warm climate wines. It takes centre stage and its flamboyance gives the perception of ripeness,” says Gordon Newton Johnson of Newton Johnson Family Vineyards. “In cool climate wines, on the other hand, fruit character tends to take a step back and allow other elements of the wine to shine. I find cool climate wines more complex and discreet. You can pick out all the intricate details. The wines also give the perception of freshness and linearity.”

South Africa’s cool climate vineyards can be traced like a roadmap through the Overberg, starting in Elgin and stretching into the Hemel-en-Aarde—where we find Gordon—all the way to the tip of Africa. 

In Elgin, winemaker and Master of Wine Richard Kershaw specialises in clonal selection, site-specific, cool climate wines. “The Elgin Valley benefits from higher altitude, ocean proximity, cloud cover and a large diurnal range,” he says, “It’s similar to Southern Burgundy and the Northern Rhône.” 

To further show-off just how cool the region is, Richard has released his ‘Deconstructed’ range, which showcases particular examples of individual specific sites, soils and clones from the Elgin region. “I have long championed regionalism and this new range focuses on this concept and the incredible quality of wines from this cool climate region.”

Another factor contributing to the Cape’s cool climate is the South-Easter, which brings with it regular cloud cover that creates a cooling effect, as well as limiting the amount of sun on the vineyards, which in turn creates conditions conducive to slow and even ripening. 

You can’t talk about Elgin without mentioning Paul Cluver Wines: the first official wine producer of the region. Winemaker Andries Burger has worked over 20 vintages here. “Being a cool climate wine region, freshness is an expected characteristic in all our wines,” wrote Andries in his 2016 harvest report. “As pioneers of viticulture in Elgin, our entire philosophy is built around making wines that reflect the unique natural environment and our distinct sites.”

A little further along, Bot River is celebrated for its cool maritime microclimate, which is influenced by its proximity to a lagoon as well as the Walker Bay coast. This small region is home to many family-owned wineries, which pack plenty of country charm. 

One such winery is Beaumont Family Wines. Sebastian Beaumont says Bot River benefits from the influence of the ocean. “It cools and moderates the region, helped along by plenty of wind. We also have great soils; mostly beautiful Bokkeveld shale.”

Sebastian describes the flavour profile of cool climate wines as: “natural freshness, a spicier herbal flavour spectrum, and more tension; while warmer climate wines tend to have more breadth, upfront fruit and richer flavours.” He says the pH and structure are quite different too.

For a wine that best expresses the cool climate character of Bot River, Sebastian suggests Beaumont’s Chenin Blanc. Six out of the 10 producers in the region now make a Chenin Blanc. 

Back to Gordon Newton Johnson and his estate high up in the Hemel-en-Aarde. “I think there is a worldwide trend to tone down on big, cumbersome flavours in wine,” says Gordon. “Many wine drinkers want their wines to be appetising, stimulating, a source of energy if you like. As they fall down the rabbit hole of wine preoccupation, they tend to hone their senses and look for something distinctive. 

“The Hemel-en-Aarde is creating its own niche and producing dynamic wines that are quintessential to the valley.”

Cooler doesn’t necessarily mean better, Gordon underscores. “There are grape varieties that are well suited to warm climate winemaking, and it is more at the discretion of the winemaker to produce intriguing wines from their set of circumstances.”

Looking to the future of winemaking in the Hemel-en-Aarde, Gordon says already the wines are completely different from 20 years ago, when he first started making wines in the valley. 

“The winemakers are more knowledgeable and have experience of the valley. They have become specialists for the Burgundy varieties grown here. Pinot Noir especially has made massive strides internationally where before we were hardly mentioned amongst the top wines. As the vineyards get gradually older, I can see the wines only getting better. Pinot Noir is very expressive of the vineyard site where it is planted and we should start to see even more interesting variations from the vineyards within the valley.”

From the more established to the newer. The wineries in the greater Cape South Coast region have grown from around four in 1992 to well over 60 today. It’s been hailed as one of the fastest growing regions for premium high-end, cool climate wines.

The southernmost tip of Africa is winemaker Trizanne Barnard’s playground. Trizanne sources grapes from vineyards in Elim for her eponymous wine label. “Together with the proximity to the oceans,” she says, “the diverse soils are another important factor. It is believed that Elim is situated on a coastal shelf that formed close to 900 million years ago and was once part of Antarctica.”

She goes on to say that due to the high chill caused by constant winds, there is little excess moisture during the rainy periods, which allows for good dormancy (uncommon in coastal vineyards). “There’s speculation that a huge underground lake exists beneath the coastal shelf. The evidence of this being the occurrence of lots of fresh water springs, making irrigation unnecessary once the vineyards have been established.

“The very cool ripening season is ideal for Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon; and the grapes are proving to develop and become more expressive with every vintage, showing freshness, fullness and balance along with ample persistence even early on, with remarkable potential to develop further in the bottle. Syrah is also really showing its true cool climate colours, with beautiful spicy and floral aromas, and structure on the palate to back it up.”

Even though we’ve reached the tip of the continent, Trizanne believes we have even further to go in pursuit of cool climate wines. “I think there are still plenty of potential vineyard pockets to be discovered along our coast and higher lying areas.” 

Go on your own voyage of discovery the next time you enjoy a glass of wine. See if you can guess the climatic conditions under which it was grown. Are you tasting sunshine or chilly winds?

Article written by Malu Lambert