The region-specific nature of wine only adds to its magic and mystique. As we open our favourite bottle and the wine starts to glug out, we’re reassured our drink has been carefully nurtured under the watchful gaze of the sun, perched on a beautiful hillside and tended by an experienced hand. And as soon as we develop a nose for wine, our choices and tastes are often guided by regions – with different countries and climates producing vastly different vintages.
A complicated collection of factors impact the appearance, nose and taste of wines – many of which are completely out of our control. These factors, affecting the traits and personality of each wine, are collectively known as the ‘terroir’, comprising environmental and cultural influences. From the average temperature of the air and the annual inches of rainfall to the type of soil and the neighbouring plant life, there are many factors affecting the suitability of a wine region.
Here, we detail the factors which help make an excellent wine region, and, more importantly, help produce excellent wine.
One of Three Climate Categories
Whilst there are a few exceptions (most notably the growing wine industry in Brazil), the vast majority of wine regions benefit from one of three categories: Mediterranean climates, Continental climates, and Maritime climates. Regions found in these three climate categories account for almost the entirety of the world’s premium wine production – and each of the climates produce vastly different grapes and, subsequently, wines.
The temperatures affect the flowering, fruit set and ripening periods of the grapes, and the physiological processes of most vines only begin when the temperatures reach around 10°C. Below this temperature, most vines remain dormant.
Temperatures between 17 and 20°C kick start the flowering process, and temperatures up to 27°C really propel the vine’s physiological processes into full stride. This is one of the major differences between the different climate categories – the daily length of time the vines enjoy these conditions during the growing season.
The Mediterranean climate wine regions, consisting of many of the old-world wineries, are characterised by long growing seasons with moderate-to-warm temperatures. Thanks to the consistent temperatures throughout the season, grape production through the region is balanced and reliable.
Continental climate wine regions face more extreme seasonal temperature changes, with warm summers and icy winters. Continental wine regions include the likes of Burgundy and Douro, as well as many of the vineyards of Central and Eastern Europe.
Finally, Maritime climate wine regions are those positioned close to large bodies of water, which can help to regulate air temperature and surrounding conditions (something we’ll cover a little later). These regions are quite diverse in terms of location, but all boast similar geographical features beneficial to wine production
28 Inches of Rain
This might sound very specific, but the average grapevine needs roughly 28 inches of water during the growing season. In regions which receive less than this in rainfall, it is simple enough for the vineyard teams to add extra water to the optimum level. However, for wetter regions, monitoring total rainfall throughout the growing season is essential – as excessive water could pose its own issues and hazards, potentially ruining a full crop.
Intelligent irrigation systems can be implemented in the regions which are at risk of excessive rainfall – one of the reasons why natural inclines are a popular spot for vineyards (along with the increased exposure to the sun).
Wind, humidity, atmospheric pressure and sunlight also play significant roles during the vine-growing period. This is just one reason why the world’s wine output is so varied, and so wonderfully interesting.
A Riverside Position
Many of the world’s favourite river routes are blessed with beautiful vineyard backdrops, and this is not just to provide on board views for lucky river cruise guests. Long ago, winemakers discovered that planting their vines adjacent to rivers helped produce excellent wine-making grapes – and, today, rivers such as the Moselle, Rhône and Douro host extensive vineyard stretches.
As mentioned above, wine production depends heavily upon climate, something which is out of our control. However, rivers can help to regulate temperature for the surrounding area, acting as both heat reservoirs and cooling agents – this helps grapes to ripen and retain their all-important acidity.
The acidity of the grapes, combined with the natural sugars, ensures the finished wine offers a more balanced taste – not dominated by certain flavours, astringent tannins or tarty tastes. Many riverside vineyards produce the most sought-after flavours in their wines, justifying a higher price when they hit the shelves.
Additionally, this natural management of the conditions ensures an increased chance that vineyards will produce more consistent vintages every season. Reducing the risk of adverse conditions leading to a poor year makes riverside positions very popular real estate amongst winemakers.
Skilled and Versatile Growers
Understanding the conditions is absolutely paramount in the production of wine-making grapes. A lack of understanding or refusal the respect the needs of the vine will, inevitably, lead to poor growth or poor quality vines. Therefore, vineyards require the careful hands of skilled and experienced winemakers.
Vineyards which have remained in the same family for generations are not only significantly more charming, but also benefit from legacy knowledge and experience passed down through the ages.
However, winemakers have to be incredibly versatile, able to adapt to changing conditions. The planet’s climate has continually changed throughout history, but evidence shows that this climate is changing at a greater rate than ever before. And as wine grapes have a relatively narrow climate preference, winemakers must be careful to ensure their crops are growing in the ideal conditions.
Whilst this can be beneficial for certain regions (the southern stretches of the UK have emerged as an ideal location for producing sparkling wines, for example), it means established vineyards have to remain adaptable.
An understanding of the climates preferred by different grape varieties is essential, allowing winemakers to diversify their output, effectively reacting to climate change. Switching to a different grape variety is not as simple as sowing a different crop at the start of the season. It can take several seasons for a new grape variety to take and start producing wine-quality fruit – so foresight, patience and attention to detail are required.
And we believe this attention to detail is more than worth it, continuing proud winemaking traditions and ensuring our wine menus are always stocked with incredible vintages.
Scenic river cruises journey through some of the world’s most beautiful wine regions, giving guests the chance to visit vineyards and sample the finest vintages. For more information on our collection of luxury river cruises, visit our homepage or call us on 0808 115 1496.