Wine Ink: The geography of wine (column)
In wine, as in real estate, location is paramount. The places where grapes grow best and the variety of the grapes grown are the two most significant factors in what makes a given wine.
Generally speaking the majority of the wine world exists in two geographic bands that wrap around the earth from 30° to 50° degrees north of the equator and 30° to 50° south of the equator. This is no coincidence as these are the places that are far enough from the equator as to be not too hot and far enough from the poles to not be too cold.
In addition, where these bands wrap the two midpoints of the hemispheres are the same parts of the planet that see subtle but significant seasonal changes that result from the tilting of the earth. That is to say the places that have four distinct seasons.
As the Northern Hemisphere tilts towards the sun in our spring and summer months, we get its waxing and waning warmth from, call it April through October. As it begins to tilt the other direction the wine-growing regions of the south see their prime growing months from say, November through April. In short, these 30° to 50° bands are prime real estate for wine growers.
The distance between each degree of latitude is approximately 69 miles (betcha didn’t know that), though each degree becomes slightly smaller at the equator and slightly larger at the poles. Do the math and you’ll see that the “sweet spot” for wine on this planet consists of two zones that are each around 1,400 miles deep, and each about midway between the equator and the poles. That represents about 1/3 of the earth.
So what is included in these sweet spots? Almost the entirety of the lower 48 states of America for starters. That’s one reason why the American wine industry has exploded in recent decades.
But if you are considering the locations of the significant wine regions on earth, you might begin with the cool climate Champagne region. The Champagne town of Reims, France, kind of the Napa of the region, sits at 49° north, just below the 50th parallel. How about the southernmost regions in the Northern Hemisphere? Perhaps the Valle de Guadalupe, the emerging wine region just south of the U.S. border in Baja, California, which sits at 32° north of the equator.
There are outliers of course. Fredericksburg, the main wine town in the Hill Country of Texas, is just above the 30th parallel, even closer to the equator than Baja. And for our friends up north in the Okanagan Valley there are wineries that are about on par with Champagne and even a few miles to the north.
Flip to the south side of the world and a region that always comes up as “the southernmost growing region on earth” is Central Otago which, at 45° south is as far from the equator as Newburg, Oregon, is in the north. It is no coincidence then that both regions specialize in the cool climate grapes like pinot noir, much like the Burgundy and Champagne regions.
Going further north in the Southern Hemisphere, (you still with me?) you’ll find the great Aussie wine regions like the Barossa Valley and the Margaret River, Mendoza in Argentina and Stellenbosch in South Africa all are in a line right around 33° and 34° south. This is a sweet spot indeed.
While these have long been regions that have produced great wines you’ll notice that I led by stating that “the majority” of the wine world exists in these bands. In recent years there has been an expansion of growing regions to both the north and south of these bands. Brazil, for example has an emerging wine industry and in Great Britain there has been a boom in the production of sparkling wines that has caught the kind of attention Champagne houses in France. Taittinger announced this spring that they have planted a vineyard in the English countryside in Kent. The wine, to be called Domaine Evremond, will be made from grapes grown at 51° north.
Further still, vineyards are being planted in Norway and Denmark. And to the south, even Thailand has a commercial winery. These wines have been collectively called “New Latitude” wines and reflect the popularity of the industry.
But for the foreseeable future it is the wines in the traditional growing zones that will continue to be beloved.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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