WSET Level 2: Conditions and growing environment – factors that influence wine

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My first lesson at the WSET level 2 started with a tasting three types of wine – no course I’ve ever taken before is more indulging than this; sipping from glasses at ten in the morning while reading an atlas of major wine regions to understand the links between geographic conditions and the various tastes of the wine.

Ningxia has been tipped as China's most promising fine wine region
Image: Ningxia has been tipped as China

Type of grape determines largely the flavour, colour, sugar, acidity and the level of tannin in the wine. Other conditions, namely climate, weather, sunlight, water, warmth and nutrients also affect the taste of the wine.

Climates suitable for wine production are divided to three categories: hot, moderate, and cool. Climate type can have dramatic impacts on flavour of ripe grapes. Latitude (the closer to equator the hotter), altitude (the higher the cooler) and influences of the sea (such as warm ocean currents and cold ocean currents) can lead to clues on the taste of the wine.

Generally speaking, hot climate (such as in Australia) brings more alcohol, fuller body, more tannin and less acidity while cool climate brings less alcohol, lighter body, less tannin, and more acidity.

I tasted one type of Chardonnay from Pouilly-Fuissé, France, and another from Marlborough, New Zealand. While the New Zealand wine offers topical fruit flavours of pineapple and mango, the French wine gives pronounced citrus, crisp acidity and mineral notes.

Climate is also a main factor that influences temperature, a key to the production of sugars. Most of the vineyards lie between 30 and 50 degrees latitude, including China’s Ningxia, the country’s biggest producer of wine grapes and home to some very impressive wines. Very few vineyards are closer to the equator than 30 degrees because it is generally too hot.

Some grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon need more heat than the others to ripen fully, while Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir need moderate or cool climate to avoid over-ripening and to maintain their refreshing character and acidity.

Weather conditions, which vary from one year to the next, also have impacts on taste, which explains the importance of vintage in some regions with inconsistent weather patterns such as Bordeaux and Champagne. Extreme weather conditions such as hail, high winds, floods and late frosts may reduce production and quality of grapes of a certain year. I quite appreciated the glass of Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina from vintage 2012, which was produced from grapes that survived the worst conditions in Mendoza in the past decade. Sometimes very good wines are in debt of Mother Nature’s blessing.

Sunlight, which gives energy to grapes to combine carbon dioxide and water (which can come from rain, the ground or irrigation) into sugar, and water are indispensable. ‘Just enough’ seems to be perfect, as too much sunlight makes grapes ripen too fast with unpleasant jammy flavour, and too much water leads the growth of rot, and causes grapes to become bloated.

Vine also needs tiny amount of nutrients provided by the soil. As long as there are sufficient nutrients, poorer soils are better – because they encourage vines to ‘compete’ with one another to absorb the nutrient and become crop of higher quality.

After the class, I found my high-school world atlas deep from the bookshelf and read the maps of the wine regions again, whilst sipping from glasses of wines to reinforce the memories of the link between geographies and tastes. As the WSET course reinforced, the best way to understand wines is always drinking.

Translated by Nina Fan Feng / 冯帆

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