Cheap Buzz: A geography lesson

Posted: April 12, 2012

BUZZ: HEY, Marnie, my brother gave me a bottle of ice wine. I think it’s from Alaska.

Marnie: I doubt that, Buzz. Vines die if they freeze solid in winter. Wine grapes grow in “temperate” climates from 30 to 50 degrees in latitude.

Buzz: OK, but if ice wine isn’t from Alaska, I bet it comes from Chile. Chile, get it?

Marnie: Good one. Funny you mention Chile — it stretches through all those latitudes and makes diverse wines as a result. Geography has a huge impact on wine style.

Buzz: Geography had an impact on me, too — landed me in summer school my junior year.

Marnie: If you’d been paying attention in class, Buzz, you’d remember that climate is largely determined by latitude. Grapes need sunshine and warmth to ripen, to develop sugar, flavor and color, so there is a direct connection between a vineyard’s climate and how its wine tastes. Since grape sugar turns into alcohol during winemaking, you can make an educated guess about its flavor and style based on its alcohol content.

Buzz: Isn’t flavor a grape thing? I mean chardonnay tastes like chardonnay, right?

Marnie: Yes and no, Buzz. Chardonnay grapes certainly have a flavor profile that we recognize in the wines made from them, but it’s strongest in wines from sunny places. In cold, cloudy regions where chardonnay barely ripens, like Chablis or Champagne in France, the wines are light-bodied, acidic and subtle in flavor, like crab apples, and may not even reach 13 percent alcohol. In warmer California, chardonnay gets much riper — sweeter, juicier and more flavorful. You can literally taste the sunshine in fruitier, fuller-bodied wines that clock in closer to 14 percent or higher. Both styles are dry wines, since grape sugar gets converted to alcohol, but the riper California version will always seem more dessert-like — less like sour crab apples and more like pineapple cake.

Buzz: I can’t drink anything “fruity” in front of the guys. I’m already crabby and sour, though. I’ll stick to that.

Marnie Old is Philadelphia’s highest-profile sommelier. She has designed wine lists for restaurants like Parc and Bar Ferdinand. Her latest book, “Wine Secrets,” is a collection of wine advice shared by top wine professionals. Marnie consults for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and is an adviser to the beverage trade. Check out her blog at Buzz’s musings are interpreted by Daily News City Editor Gar Joseph.

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