Yes, certain grape varietals require a certain climate to produce quality wine. In fact, climate determines whether grapes can exist at all. There is a very biological reason that grape vines grow the best only between certain latitudes – 30-50 degrees in each hemisphere–and this has a lot to do with the temperate climates at these locations on the globe. Even more specifically, certain grapes, let’s say Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, are more “cool” climate varietals, requiring an even more specific climate for optimal growth. Further complicating the vine growth process is the idea of microclimates, where seemingly insignificant factors such as slope, orientation, or altitude of the vineyard can greatly affect the quality of wine produced from the vines that grow there. We can go on and on (see Burgundy) with how small microclimates need to be, and how the idea of terroir plays into the grape growing process, but I don’t want to bore you with excessive technical viticulture. Let’s just talk about wine.
There are many wine-growing regions in the world that play host to several varietals at a time. When you look at regions such as Bordeaux and Northern California, you’ll see a couple varietals growing right next to each other in the same climate zone. You see this often with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Whereas in regions such as Burgundy, France and Mosel in Germany, there are many vineyards where only one varietal is planted (Pinot Noir/Chardonnay in Burgundy, and Riesling in Germany). The wines produced from these types of places are often a pure reflection of the nature of the exact vineyard and location, and often carry a mystique that is hard to find in the more varied regions.
While several varietals are likely to be grown all over the world and in many different climates and wine-producing regions, such as Chardonnay, there are several varietals that tend to be a little pickier about the climate where they prefer to flourish. Pinot Noir is probably one of, if not the most temperamental varietal to grow. Typically, this grape needs a cooler climate to show its best flavor, which is why you find emerging Pinot Noir wine zones in some of the coolest wine regions in the world, such as the Central Otago region in New Zealand, and some of the cooler areas in Oregon. Pinot Noir is one of the most expressive and sensual grapes, with soft tannins, silky textures, and flavors of red berries and chocolate. Such a delicate grape requires just the perfect growing conditions, and climate is extremely important when deciding whether to grow Pinot Noir. This cool-climate varietal can be finicky.
Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are two of the cooler-climate white varietals. Some of the best Sauvignon Blanc is found in New Zealand, as well as some of the cooler parts of Chile, South Africa, and Washington State. Austria even produces wine with this varietal, along with the classic areas of Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. Riesling is primarily grown in Germany, where it is seen as the most noble of noble varietals. Also found in Alsace, France, New Zealand, and cooler Washington State, Riesling has struggled to maintain popularity in the New World, though some will argue this is because it is often misinterpreted as a “sweet” wine, when in fact, Riesling can be extremely dry.
Though it is grown around the world in many different places, Cabernet Sauvignon is primarily a warm-climate grape. I would venture to say that it is the varietal in need of the hottest climate. Some of the best Cabernets are grown in the warmer areas of Napa Valley, as well as the up-and-coming Central Coast of California, where you can find some full-bodied interesting Cabs from my new favorite appellation of Paso Robles. Speaking of Paso Robles, let us not ignore the warm-climate nature of Zinfandel. This spicy little robust red needs some hotness under her roots and over her vines, which is why the varietal does great in places like warm, dry California and her native lands of Croatia and Puglia, Italy, where Zinfandel is known as Tribidrag and Primitivo, respectively.
Syrah is another of the warm-climate grapes. This varietal grows extremely well in hot climates such as those found in Australia, where it is known as Shiraz. Though it varies in taste from the vineyards of the Rhone Valley in France (leather, damp earth, smoke) to the hot Barossa Valley in Australia (boysenberry, spice), one thing is for sure; Syrah (Shiraz) is a manly wine that should not be taken lightly.
Not all grapes can grow in all wine regions. It takes a certain climate to enhance the development and expression of each varietal. Whether you believe in the concept of terroir, or you appreciate the talents of the winemaker, you cannot fight the nature and temperature needs of the vine.