The Ginger Man

Archives: October 2016

The Ginger Man Presents WINES WITH ALTITUDE

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

There has been some discussion in my world 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.

ViñedoCafayate.jpgOne 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.”

“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.

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 its first harvest this year.

Most wineries do not mention the altitude of their vineyards, so plenty of online research has to be done. I knew that Argentinian wines would be a must try so we are showcasing a Malbec. The highest vineyards in Europe had to be in the Alps, Dolomite, Northern Spain 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 6,600 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).

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.