The high life: wines and the great effect of altitude
'High altitude' has become a buzzword in the world of fine wine over the last few years, with many producers growing to great lengths to promote how their vines were grown at breath-taking heights above sea level. Is high altitude always a good thing though and what are the elements that it brings to the final wine? Here’s your Clos19 guide to the high (wine) life and how to taste it in the glass.
Aiming high: what does ‘high altitude’ mean for wine?
When winemakers talk about high altitude or high elevation, it is always in relation to the norm for that particular region and will vary according to proximity to bodies of water, terroir and latitude. In its broadest sense, it could be described as the height at which the climatic environment has changed enough to make a difference to the grapes. For example, vines are considered to be very ‘high altitude’ in Argentina at Terrazas de los Andes and Cheval des Andes at over 1,000 meters (in Mendoza) and at over 1,800 meters (in Salta), whereas at Ao Yun: the pioneering luxury Chinese winery in the foothills of the Himalayas, vines reach a breath-taking 2,600 meters above sea level.
Natural high: what does a high altitude bring to the wine?
Temperature: In warmer climates, high altitude is a particularly positive thing as temperatures drop significantly at night the higher up you go. This means that the grapes ripen well in the warm sunshine during the day, but the cooler night temperatures allow the sugars to concentrate and the acids to develop, so the resulting wines are fruity, but never flabby.
Drainage: Great drainage frequently goes hand in hand with high altitude wines as the vineyards are often on slopes. Good drainage means that water is harder to find, so the vines get stressed and roots go deeper. As they put so much energy into this, they grow fewer berries, but those berries in return have more character and concentration. These deeper roots pick up more trace elements from the soils too which make the terroir more apparent in the final wines.
Sunlight: The higher the altitude, the more intense the sunshine in terms of UV. More UV means the grapes will develop darker, thicker skins as the grape protects itself from sunburn. Thicker skins mean greater structure and character, which make them perfect for ageing.
For all the reasons above, growing a wine a high altitude can be considered quite extreme in terms of winemaking. The resulting wines however, will have lots of character, flavour and fruit but also, good tannin and acidity: all qualities that make truly fine wine that can be laid down as exemplified by the very fine reds from Cheval des Andes, Terrazas de los Andes and Ao Yun. The only downside is that you may have to wait longer before you can drink them! While you wait, you can enjoy the beautiful freshness of the floral and exotic Torrontés.