Cool climate is the kind of phrase that spills from the mouths of sommeliers, winemakers, sales reps, and export managers often enough that it may risk falling from the class of 'semi-technical term' to the level of 'brandspeak'. Hopefully, this won't be the case, because the phrase describes an important effect of a wine's place of origin, and some of us are sort of in love with that effect, and don't want to see the words lose their sheen. For now, the phrase still moves us.
I was just over that threshold of legal drinking age the first time I bought a bottle of wine in a restaurant. The waiter asked if I would like it decanted, and I froze, totally unsure of what criteria should drive this decision. I stared, agape, then glanced at my date. She didn't know, either. "No, no, that's okay," I said, a decline-from-panic, and the waiter gave a shrug that read Hey, you're the boss, hoss.
Not long ago, at a wine tasting, my friend John said to me, "If I owned two vineyards, I'd name one Spicy, and the other Smooth. I'd make ten million dollars." Clearly, John has a mind for marketing. But it turns out there's a chemical explanation for some wines tasting spicy.
Residual Sugar, or RS for short, refers to any natural grape sugars that are leftover after fermentation ceases (whether on purpose or not). You should think of RS as having a balancing relationship with a wine's acidity. They are on opposite sides of the seesaw, so if the wine has sugar you will probably want acidity, too—otherwise the wine will feel cloying. On the other hand, certain very high-acid wines, like Vouvray or Riesling, can be far more tasty with a few extra grams of RS.
"Lick it," he told me, "Lick the rock." I had heard of this kind of thing before, but still, I figured that Thibeault Liger-Belair, winemaker and inheritor of crazy-good chunks of prime Burgundy vineyard land, must have been at least halfway kidding. He wasn't. He demonstrated, turning an oblong hunk of mottled limestone in his hand and then dragging it lengthwise down the center of his unfurled tongue.
Lately, I've been trying really hard not to do obnoxious things, like quote a wine's pH at the table. If I do, it will be something insane, like 2.8 or 2.7 (!), or whatever. Otherwise, I'm trying to keep it to myself. You don't care about pH, do you? Or do you?
Most commonly, when we use the word oak, we mean to describe the flavor that new (or nearly new) barrels bestow upon wine that has spent time inside them. This flavor can vary, but usually anything that smells like coconut, vanilla, cedar, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, or, well, the split wood of oak trees, is a dead giveaway for aging in new (or newish) oak barrels. Uncertain? Go pour yourself a glass of bourbon, and smell that. There's what oh-so-much oak smells like. Whole splintery planks of it.
Red wine is not the only place you encounter the stuff. Black tea has tannin in spades (especially when oversteeped), as does the skin of a peanut. The skins of common apple varieties are always a bit tannic, but the tannin of crabapples and traditional cider apples is usually so intense (especially with their soaring levels of acidity) that it makes them pretty much inedible.
Last night, when I used this word at your table, I loaded it with such obvious ardor that you must have wondered if acidity wasn't some weird byword for quality, that acidity=good. And the equation might hold, at least for many sommeliers. Acid may be for us what capsaicin is for judges of chili cook-offs.