Altitude affects wine by making it richer in taste and lower in alcohol than their lower altitude counterparts.
Wine produced high in the hills not only delivers more flavour but also a sense of place. Indeed, growing vines high up, marks wines in their structures because their roots connect them deeply with their land which is reflected back inside the wine.
With altitude wine, we can explore nuances, encounter different flavour profiles, discover new real wines made in the most natural way.
To dive into this more you need to understand how conditions differ from the standard lower altitudes.
There are fewer hours of sun
The biggest difference from a low altitude location is fewer hours of sun. This makes the fruit grow more slowly.
Elevation is an interesting way to densify and intensify solar exposure. Though because of the height of the mountains, shadows from peaks can reduce the time the grapes are exposed to sunlight.
In a way, it is a blessing in disguise. This means potentially lower alcohol and higher acidity, both increasingly sought after for lighter, fresher wines, such as those from Alpine areas.
Grapes have more time on the vine
But if the weather allows, vines grapes can have some extra 40 days spent on the vine. This allows them to fully develop their structure, acidity, and sugar content.
Temperatures vary more between day and night
Temperatures increase as elevation increases during summer days. This leads to more concentrated flavour profiles in the fruit. Once the sun sets, summer temperatures shift to cooler nights allowing grapes to replenish in acidity.
This ongoing daily contrast – acidity/ tannins/ sugar contributes to ripe tannins which create super silky texture and elegance in the wine.
Humidity is lower
The lower humidity above the plains, like the waxing and waning of temperatures, add elegance to wine by enabling grapes to get highly ripe.
Sunlight has a higher UV
A wine’s tannin structure and acidity are predominantly developed in the vineyard. To achieve such a quality vineyard’s exposure to the sun is key. A higher UV is achieved the higher you go, which thickens the skin, leading to deeper colours and richer tannins.
The air is thinner
The oxygen content in the air is 30% that of lower flatland which forces the fruit to develop thicker skin. This again leads to greater colour concentration and stronger tannins.
More diverse growing environments
Elevation brings an impressive display of mesoclimates. Terrain comprises peaks, valleys and ledges which all influence the complexity of wines. It is in these diverse growing areas that vines experience high stress, which focuses the plant on fruiting the best it can over growing foliage.
There’s less surface water
Higher elevations are prone to more intense weather due to the way storm systems hit mountain ranges. However, rain runs off from hillside vineyards and has little opportunity to be absorbed. This has two great effects on vines: stressing them due to a lack of water and forcing the roots to push deeper to seek water from subterranean water tables.
This lack of surface water forces the roots to grow deeper, in turn stressing the vine which encourages the vines to put more energy into developing fruit rather than full, leafy canopies which reduce the amount of water that reaches deep into the soil to feed the roots of the vines. This constrains the yields quantities, leading to fewer but better grape clusters per vine.
More unusual grape varieties thrive
With altitude wines, we also reconnect to ancient grape varieties only known to the region where they were produced.
And nature wins
Most vineyards grown on high elevations are farmed by people who, due to the conditions created by altitude, cannot compromise on farming or drive economies of scale. They have to go with nature and adopt more sustainable farming practices.
Due to the steeper slopes, vineyard orientation and terrain, winegrowers are forced to do a lot more by hand. Many vineyard management practices have been mechanised to streamline processes, but these machines cannot traverse the steep terrain.
Though it may require more manual effort, the overall impact these winegrowers have on the land is reduced allowing them to truly focus on sustainability efforts.
Due to the limited mechanisation most high altitude wineries are developing a gentle approach helps minimise carbon footprint and leads to higher quality fruit.