Cool Kids

Jeffery Lindenmuth - October 2006

Whether we're talking high school cliques or wine country, it seems everybody wants to run with the cool crowd.

Current advertising for Reynolds Vineyards, located in the Orange district of New South Wales, proclaims "Cool Aussie," while another ad for Central Coast Chardonnay headlines "Classic Wines from a Cool Climate." Yet traditionally frosty wine regions in northern France, Germany, and Canada, where grapes struggle to ripen, might scoff at such appropriation of the ever-subjective "cool."

"To some degree, cool-climate is a concept that's in development," says Burke Owens, associate director of wine for Copia--The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa, California. "It depends on where you're based. Coming from a New World perspective, which tends to be warmer climate than the Old World, we talk about Carneros being cool compared to the rest of Sonoma or Napa, even though it's not compared to Germany."

Forced to make a distinction, Owens deems a region climactically cool if the daytime temperature rarely exceeds 75°F. "In general, cool climate regions are more northerly in the north, like Germany, northern France, Switzerland, Austria, northern Italy, the northern United States, and Canada.

And they're more southerly in the Southern Hemisphere, like New Zealand, South Africa, Tasmania, or southern Chile," says Owens. Other wine regions might remain cooler due to elevation, as in the case of Mount Etna in otherwise sizzling Sicily, or coastal influence, like Monterey and Carneros in California and Margaret River in West Australia.

Advocates of cool climate viticulture believe that the climate results in more even ripening of grapes, allowing the sugar ripeness and phenolic ripeness (elimination of green flavors and softening of tannins), to converge naturally. "Many viticulturists believe that in warmer climates the sugars develop first and you have to wait for the flavor profile to ripen, so you get lower acid and more alcohol than you need or want," explains Owens. Many wine lovers agree.

For wine directors in search of food-friendly offerings, it's the character of the wine, as much as the geography, that makes them so cool. "In general, cooler climate wines have lower alcohol and higher acidity. Alcohol tends to get in the way and make the overall density of the food and wine too heavy. The acidity in wine is really the key element in food pairing," says Nate Ready, sommelier at Frasca in Boulder, Colorado, which offers a list of cool-climate wines focusing on northern Italy (augmented by Austria, Germany, and France) to match Friulian cuisine. Cool-climate wines are easier to drink, act to extend the flavors of the dish they are paired with, and present a feeling of buoyancy as opposed to heaviness."

Christopher Tunnah, general manager at L'Impero in Manhattan, says that while his list is not consciously cool-climate, such wines are well represented among the 250 mostly Italian selections. "In New York, people are concerned with the size and alcohol of their wine. The major issue we have with some California wines is that they attain a level of ripeness and alcohol that is not common in Europe," he says, warning that the high alcohol content of certain warm-climate wines can make the wine seem sweeter, up the heat in already spicy foods, and dominate the food.

Jason Miller, wine director at Picholine in New York City, permits cool-climate wines to ebb and flow with the seasons on his Francophilic list: "In the winter, we're big on game, so it's Côte Rôtie and Hermitage. But in summer or spring, with the abundance of watermelon, corn, and tomatoes, I want cool-climate whites, which tend to be more about aromatics. I'll pair white gazpacho with a Spanish Albariño and heirloom tomatoes with Rotgipfler."

New York State wines also make summertime cameos on the Picholine wine list. Miller favors Cabernet Franc from the Hudson Valley and Chardonnay and Merlot from Long Island's North Fork for their "superior balance." Well aware that a current generation of American wine lovers has been weaned on bold wines and big flavors, Miller realizes that traditional cool-climate wines can be an acquired taste for some patrons. "When I give a delicate Burgundy to a table that is used to drinking viscous, big, powerful wine I sometimes have to explain my choice," says Miller. "But, how the wine works with food is my number one priority."

Traci Dutton, wine director at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone's Wine Spectator Restaurant in sunny St. Helena, California, also seeks out cool-climate wines to enhance the restaurant's American interpretation of global flavors. "We can't work without the clean acidity in the whites and the lean mineral qualities and brighter fruit in the reds. These are the wines, with their balance and grace and lower alcohol, that keep the diner reaching for more to complete the experience," says Dutton.

While local Napa Cabernet is a top seller, Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley and sparkling wines from the Anderson Valley are the staff's go-to wines for food pairing. And, the cool-climate catch phrase seems to resonate with wine lovers at Greystone: The best-selling wine flight is "Cool Climate, Hot Wines," a three-ounce pour each of J Pinot Gris, Dehlinger Chardonnay, and Merry Edwards Pinot Noir for $16. "As a group, the wines could take the diner all the way through a meal, from mango/crab salad to onion soup soufflé to roasted duck with dried cherries," says Dutton.

Dutton reserves high-test California Cabernet and Zinfandel for the most boldly flavored dishes--grilled meats, fruit sauces, and Mexican moles. "Alcohol sedates the palate and high tannins accumulate on your palate. Eventually you numb your tongue," explains Dutton.

At Clio in Boston, wine director Erin O'Shea organizes the 200-bottle Eurocentric list in order from lightest to heaviest, which permits cool-climate whites from the Loire Valley, Chablis, and Champagne to rise as cream to the top. "I'll describe these wines as cool-climate to people. It's something that they seem to grasp," says O'Shea.

Big California reds still sell themselves at Clio, but O'Shea has noticed a renewed interest in Old World wines. "People taste things like Burgundy and light crisp Spanish whites, and they realize that wines don't have to be over the top," she says.

Eric Zillier, wine director at Alto in New York City, says he rarely hears diners mutter "cool-climate," but the sentiment still comes across. "I don't have people say ‘cool-climate' but more people ask for wines that are light and crisp, which implies cool-climate." However, the Aussies, masters of wine marketing, seem determined to spread the term. "Many parts of Australia are seeking to be known as cool-climate. This is almost a response to the superripe jammy wines of Barossa. Now wine regions want to be like Bordeaux. They want to associate themselves with Old World regions," says Zillier.

For these wine directors, ever in quest of the perfect wine to go with a dish, cool isn't as easily defined as a climate, or a region, or a vintage. It's what's in the bottle. And you either know cool or you don't.