Wines at Chilly Extremes
When wine lovers talk about cold- climate wines, more often than not they’re referring
to areas of the world where grapes are grown, but the temperatures are chillier than
in the sunny, balmy climes of Napa Valley, California, or Mendoza, Argentina. Think
places like the cool and wet Champagne region of France, or the fabled Riesling
territory of the Mosel in Germany, and you’ll get the general picture.
There are, however, wine-growing environments that go well beyond the chilliness
experienced regularly by those “cooler climate” regions. So much so, in fact, that
they make the vineyard challenges of areas such as Champagne and the Mosel look like
minor annoyances in comparison.
While it’s not generally common knowledge among wine drinkers, fine wine grapes
are grown in some of the most extreme – and extremely chilly – farming areas available
to human beings. Here are some of the world’s hardcore wine regions, the ones that
really put the “cold” in “cold climate.” Grab a glass of your favorite cooler- region
wine, don a sweater, and take a virtual trip with us to the wine world’s chilly extremities.
Central Otago, New Zealand
Central Otago is the wine world’s answer to the famous limbo question,
“How low can you go?” Technically, this South Island New Zealand wine region is
the world’s southernmost spot for growing wine grapes (your next options are the Southern
Ocean, and Antarctica, and no -one is vying to try planting vineyards in those spots any
The area is famous for having been gold rush territory in the 1800s, and for providing
some of the beautifully rugged landscapes featured in The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy,
but it’s also become famous for producing world-class Pinot Noir. The climate here is as
dramatic as the scenery – this is one of New Zealand’s coldest and driest regions, and
can experience temperatures between 38 degrees Celsius and -21 degrees Celsius.
While the winters in Central Otago can be bitterly cold, its mountainous terrain and
vineyard elevations help to protect its grapes from the more extreme climatic events
(though frost is still a common farming threat). As a result, other hardy grape varieties
also thrive here, including the white wine grapes Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling,
Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer.
Of course, if the wine world has an extreme southern point, it also has its extreme
northern point, which can be found in the picturesque area of Telemark, Norway. It’s
there that you can find the Lerkekåsa vineyard, located near Lake Norsjø. Lerkekåsa
is technically the world’s northernmost vine planting area, as of 2015. Just how far
north are those vines? Let’s put it this way: until recently, Telemark was probably
most famous as the birthplace of free-heel skiing. Its vines happen to share the same
latitude with some of the chillier places on the planet, including Siberia, southern
Greenland, and Alaska.
At this extreme, few fine-wine grapes do well, however but this region has had
success with Solaris, a hearty white wine variety developed from vine crossings in
Germany. It also happens to be a gloriously beautiful spot, and luckily you can stay
there – at Lerkekåsa vineyard, they, which also provide accommodation services.
The words “penguin” and “fine wine” don’t normally come together in the same
sentence (unless maybe you’re dining during a very desperate and ill-fated Antarctic
sea voyage), but thesethose two things can both be found in the southern Argentine
region of Patagonia.
The land of migrating Magellan Penguins is also a land of some serious vinous
variety, growing a diverse selection of wine grapes, including Chenin Blanc and
Torrontés for whites, and Malbec, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon,
and Bonarda for reds. This area is located about 400 miles from Argentina’s wine
epicenter, Mendoza, but shares some of Mendoza’s characteristics as a high desert.
Temperature extremes are the norm in Patagonia, and the area sees some of South America’s
warmest and coldest temperatures. The grapes have a nice, lengthy ripening period there,
resulting in wines with intense aromas, fruitiness, and structure.
It’s small, and it’s not the world’s coldest vine growing area, but the Ahr (located near
a tributary of the Rhine River in Germany) has the unique designation of being the most
northern wine region planted primarily with red wine grapes (which account for more than
85 percent of its vineyard area).
Interestingly, it’s believed that the region’s wine potential was identified as
far back as Roman times, so its northerly climes haven’t seemed to ever have
deterred the winemaking business. This is kind of odd when you consider that
the Ahr shares the 51st parallel north with areas such as England and Mongolia.
While several grapes are grown in the Ahr, the majority of the region is planted with
Spätburgunder (better known as Pinot Noir), which does well here thanks to the protection
of the Eifel Mountains and the resulting warmer microclimates in which the vineyards are
planted. Up until the late 1980s, the region produced Pinot Noir wine that had more in
common with sweet rosé than with the dry red wine that you might think of when you conjure
up visions of Pinot in your mind’s eye. Now, the regional Ahr style is dominated by more
robust, structured reds, with prominent oak spice aromas.
Niagara Peninsula, Canada
The Niagara area of Canada is known for producing ice hockey players, but it’s also
justifiably famous among wine lovers for producing something else: icewine. What makes
this region extreme is the fact that this style of wine, which requires grapes to be
frozen on the vine, can be produced naturally there.
Icewine in the region is made primarily from thick-skinned Vidal grapes that are
picked when temperatures in the vineyards are between -10 and -12 degrees Celsius,
which usually happens in the wee hours of the night, making for some extremely chilly
harvesting scenarios. The resulting wine is expensive to make, but packs concentrated
punches of intense floral aromas and pure fruity sweetness.
In terms of dry wines, Niagara is dominated by Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay.
However, thanks to its geological history, a wide variety of grapes are planted there,
including Vidal, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. We can thank ancient glaciers
for that: they once covered the area, and in their retreat left behind complex soil
deposits, which is one of the reasons that the region can grow so many different grape
Cold weather can be dark and gloomy at times, and easy to get lost, dreaming of a summery sangria. But as we've just learned, cooler climates are able to produce some amazing wine! So cozy up by the fire and enjoy a glass from a chilly extreme!