Why does the same varietal taste different depending on its country of origin?
Do you love a certain grape? Do you have secret romance for Pinot, Cab, or Malbec? If so, then you’ve probably gone out and looked for bottles of your favorite vino from different wine-growing regions around the world. But once uncorked, just how distinctive are they? Whether your bottle’s from another country or even a sub-region within the same country, the taste all comes down to terroir.
What Factors Influence a Wine’s Aroma and Flavor Profile?
Several independent factors shape the style of wine and your glass. These start in the vineyard: climate, geography, soils, and latitude.
First question: Where is the vineyard?
The climate is comprised of the average sunlight, wind patterns, humidity, precipitation, and temperatures throughout the growing season.
The vineyard’s orientation toward the sun affects the amount and intensity of sunlight a vine receives. For example, a vineyard planted on a west-facing hillside gets hot afternoon sun, while an east-facing hillside benefits from the less-intense morning sun.
Altitude also plays a role. Vineyard sites at extreme altitudes, for example in Argentina, have wider temperature swings between day and nighttime temperatures, termed diurnal range. This preserves acidity and makes for more refined tannins.
Soil composition, whether clay, sand, silt, or something else entirely, impacts the amount of water and nutrients available to the vine. Fertile soils with decent water retention will allow for vigorous vine growth with less-intense aromas and flavors in the vine. Soils where the vine has limited nutrient and water availability will concentrate energy into berries for reproduction, making for more flavorful wines.
The majority of the world’s grapevines are grown in a banana belt between 30° and 50° (okay – a ‘grape belt’). Regions furthest from the equator have longer growing days, but shorter growing seasons, leading to higher acid wines.
Every vineyard, and therefore every wine made from the grapes in that vineyard, will express a unique profile. This is the essence of what the French term terroir.
Second question: What’s in the vineyard?
Growers select clones based on suitability to the local growing environment but also on the availability of plant material.
Our science and understanding of how viticultural practices influence the final sensory qualities in a wine continue to expand. Trellising, leaf positioning, and pruning all help with ripening. Just like raising a child, different vineyard managers have their own viticultural philosophies that will impact wine style.
Case Study: French Wine vs. California Wine
In general, an experienced wine taster (or enthusiastic wine drinker) can tease out the differences between a French wine and a California wine based on how all the different growing factors come together to shape what’s in their glass.
The major winegrowing regions in France tend to be cooler with maritime influences (Bordeaux) or continental influences (Burgundy and the Loire). This leads to wines with linear, crunchy fruit, and firm tannins.
California’s principal wine-growing regions (e.g., Sonoma, Napa, Paso Robles, Monterey) enjoy a warm Mediterranean climate where fruit ripening is never an issue. When compared to their French counterparts, a California wine often expresses ripe, jammy fruit, high alcohol, and trouble with maintaining acidity.
Case Study: Chardonnay
Chardonnay is a prime example of California wine vs. French wine and how a grape can differ depending on where it's grown.
A Chardonnay from Chablis, France, crafts vibrant, biting wines that profile mouth-watering green fruit. A Chardonnay sourced from vineyards a little over 100 km south in Burgundy will have green apple, but also stone fruits thanks to west-facing slopes that help capture early morning sunlight.
Across the Atlantic, Chardonnay sourced from the breezy Sonoma Coast expresses a finesse with its stone fruits while Chardonnay grown in the oppressive Central Valley wallops the palate with tropical fruit and alcohol.
Beyond differences between countries, each region specializes in unique styles of wine. Take time to explore and discover how these expressions reveal themselves.
Here at Gold Medal Wine Club, we pride ourselves on offering a broad array of wines from some of the top wine regions of the world! Join our International Wine Club to experience wines from across the globe exclusively imported to arrive on your doorstep!
Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly, Certified Specialist of Wine, is a wine writer and educator. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers dedicated to crafting great wines.