Wines with Altitude

Some wines have attitude, and others have altitude. Yes, you read that correctly, altitude, as in elevation.

There has been some discussion on whether or not grapes grown at higher altitude, taste any different from those grown at more normal elevations. I would guess that most of you haven't really paid much attention to where you wine grapes come from, much less, how high above sea level they were grown. I decided to put together a wine tasting event of only "high altitude" wines, to see if our wine club members noticed anything different. More on that a little later.

Catena Zapata Vineyards
One challenge is that there is no set definition on what is considered "high altitude". Is an elevation of 1,000 feet high, or just a hillside?, What if you move up to 2,000 feet? Most of the research into using high altitude vineyards, is being done by Nicolas Catena (owner of Catena Zapata) in Argentina. For 20 years, he has been locating microclimates at various elevations in the Mendoza region, usually above 3,000 feet.

According to research reports,  "chemical analysis of grapes from four high-altitude vineyards supports the position that the same variety, in this case cabernet sauvignon, offers distinct aromas and flavors when cultivated at differing elevations and in varying soils."

Malbec
 "The lower temperatures and higher solar radiation at these various altitudes make for more concentrated flavors in the wines," Catena explains. "Cabernet Sauvignon samples in the test included fruit from the Uxmal Vineyard at 3,100 feet above the Mendoza Valley in the Agrelo district, which was ripe with blackberry and cassis aromas and flavors; the same variety and clone from the Domingo Vineyard, at 3,700 feet, showed more spice and black pepper intensity. There is also a thought that the UV rays are better able to penetrate the skins of the grape, and actually ripen the pips, so you end up with riper tannins. Additionally, the skins grow thicker in response to the UV light and lower temperatures, again allowing richer extraction during skin soaking and fermentation. This would lead to a higher intensity of phenolics (such as quercetine and resveratrol). This is typical of  grapes grown in stressful conditions.  The "stressful conditions" associated with high altitude are lower temperatures, higher UV radiation and  light intensity, less oxygen and carbon dioxide, and shorter growing seasons. For a full report on the findings in a 2007 symposium check out this article: Exploring High Altitude Viticulture.

Etna Rosso
Phenolics are the naturally occurring chemical compounds found in grapes, which give a wine its profile. These include the flavor and color compounds and tannins, as well as hundreds of other complex chemical components which are vital to a wine's character.

Currently, the highest vineyards in the world are located in Argentina. They are located in the Salta region, and are located in the Altura Maxima vineyard at 9,849 feet. The wines are produced by Hess, under the name of Colomé.Another vineyard has been planted further up the mountain at 10,206 feet, and should be ready for it's first harvest this year.

Back to our wine tasting....the biggest challenge was finding wines to taste. Most wineries do not mention the altitude of their vineyards, so plenty of online research was done before heading to the wine shop. I knew that Argentinian wines would be on the menu, so Malbec, and Torrontes were a given. The highest vineyards in Europe had to be in the Alps, Dolomite, or Pyrenees mountain ranges, but I found the highest vineyards are actually located on Mt Etna, on Sicily in Italy (elevation of 10,992ft, with vineyards at around 3,600 ft.)

In the United States, I focused in on the Napa and Sonoma regions, looking at areas like Lake County AVA (vineyards at 2,000 to 2,400ft), Howell Mountain (1,600 to 2,200ft), Spring Mountain (2,000ft), Mount Veeder (400 to 2,600ft), Atlas Peak (1,400 to 2,400ft), Diamond Mountain (1,200 to 2,100ft) and Sonoma Mountain (600 to 2,400ft).

We ended up tasting the following wines: Fabres Montmayu Phebus Torrontes '10 (vineyards at 3,000ft); Chateau Chevalier Spring Mountain Sauvignon Blanc '06 (vineyards at 1,000ft); Tenuta della Terre Nere Etna Rosso '10 (vineyards at 2,200ft); Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec '08 (vineyards at 5,000ft); Don Miguel Gascon Malbec '09 (vineyards range between 2,000 and 5,000ft); Alterra Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon '04 (vineyards between 1,400 and 2,200ft); and Smith-Madrone Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon '04 (vineyards between 1,300 and 1,900ft).

Smith-Madrone Vineyards
The results of the tasting....positive comments on all the wines. Based on how fast they lasted, the most popular wines were the Gascon Malbec and the Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon. The challenge with high altitude tastings is, there was no way to compare low elevation with high elevation, as the choices the winemaker makes during vinification would affect the final product. Personally, I felt that each wine had a little more fruit forward nose, and each had nice structure. I really enjoyed the Chateau Chevalier, the Tenuta delle Terre Nere, and the Smith-Madrone. So, was there an difference with higher elevation? My honest answer is, "I am not sure".

As more wineries explore higher altitude, it will be interesting to see if they tout their elevation. Right now, it takes a lot of research and a lot of shopping to find these wines (other than wines made in Argentina). I'm going to search for Colomé, and do some more "research".

17 comments:

  1. Colorado might be worth a shot on your high altitude research as well.

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  2. I have tried a number of Colorado wines (and still have some in my wine cellar). Most are grown around the Grand Junction area, located around 4,500 feet. This area is still developing their wine industry. The wines are very hard to find in California...but, "yes"...this could be an area to watch!

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  3. I have heard of them at 9000 feet in colorado but these Argentine wines at 10,000 take the cake, so it seems.

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  4. Terror Creek is at around 6500 feet above sea level in the west elks AVA in Colorado.

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  5. I just purchased a 9 acre parcel near lake Cuyamaca (Harrison Par to be exact) in San Diego County, altitude 4000 feet. I'm going to plant next year, and I'm still deciding which grape to go with. I haven't found any wines to taste from this region. I know there are good wines made from Nebbiolo grown at this altitude in Italy, so this is one of my candidates. I'm taking a two week trip to Italy in May to do some research Any suggestions?

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    1. There are a few wineries doing Nebbiolo in Central California. The problem is that it is just too hot there. Altitude is one thing, but the microclimate, soil, and aspect of the land will really come into play.

      I live at 5,200 feet, and our late season snow/frost wouldn't work for early budding varieties. We usually stay warm through early October. I would guess you have a similar situation. Look for late budding, early ripening grapes varieties, and use a root stock that works best for your soil type. Italy offers so many different grape varieties (over 800) that would be interesting to try in California. I'd love to see someone start growing these little known grapes, and corner the market.

      Please keep me updated on your progess. I'd love to visit your property, and chronicle the growth.

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  6. Come taste wines at Imagery Estate Winery(in the Sonoma Valley AVA), they have the highest elevated vineyard in Sonoma County which sits at 2,800 feet (Pine Mnt AVA), very high considering the highest elevation in So. County is 3,000 feet! They are growing varietals such as Malbec, Tannat, Lagrein, Tempranillo, Grenache, and as well as some white varietals. Truly a magical experience when you taste these wines

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  7. High elevation is the way to describe this ... altitude is for being above the Earth's surface, like in a plane, elevation describes a point or place on the Earth's surface above sea level.

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    1. Read the first line of the blog. It is a play on words. Have a glass of wine, and relax.

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    2. La Chiripada winery in Northern New Mexico has been growing grapes at 6000' for 36 years. Definitely worth checking out.

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    3. La Chiripada winery in Northern New Mexico has been growing grapes at 6000' for 36 years. Definitely worth checking out.

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  8. We make wine in Jackson Hole at 6200 ft. and one of the advantages to making wine at a higher elevation is the lack of oxygen during the primary fermentation process. Every 1,000 ft you lose 3% of oxygen

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  9. I am doing research on two fronts right now - high altitude rosés and for my own high altitude 1400m vineyard project in Provence. I agree, not always easy to source the right wines to taste, as few vineyards mention the altitude details. Increasingly there are vineyards looking at higher elevations around the Mediterranean to counter the high temperatures. Greece, the Greek Islands, Cyprus, Israel..... Rosé seems to benefit from these locations giving great fruit and acidity.

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    1. Please feel free to add any comments from your research. Always interested in hearing about new growing regions, and techniques.

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  10. Finger Lakes region, upstate NY. Definitely worth your time, and tasting. :)

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  11. I may have missed this is your blog, but I did not see any white wine grapes regarding elevation. In your opinion, do red or white wine grapes grow better at higher elevations?

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    1. An interesting question, and one that I do not know the answer to. The only region where I have heard of higher elevation white grape production, is in Sicily. I am sure there are other regions, but I haven;t been made aware. In the areas I am familiar with, the grapes grown at high elevation are all red. My guess is that the thicker skins of the red grapes make better candidates for the high elevation...but that is only a guess.

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