It’s wine that comes from grapes grown at high altitude, that much is obvious. In Europe this tends to mean vines grown above 500m, but in other regions around the world it is much higher.
The benefits of high altitude wine for you and me are a more elegant acidity, tannin and sugar structure, which contributes to ripe tannins which give super-silky texture and strength to the wine.
Due to their relative inaccessibility high altitude vineyards, by necessity, tend to also adopt more sustainable practices.
But beyond this, high altitude wine has always had a somewhat mythical status. Virgiles mentioned in his peaceful rural poetry in 29BC ‘Bacchus amat colles,’ or ‘Bacchus loves hills.’ Bacchus, the god of wine had affection for wines made on high.
How high does high altitude wine have to be?
Where you are in the world dictates how high you can go. The closer you are to the equator the ‘vine line’, below which vines can grow, gets higher. Some wine regions can go higher than others.
Climate change is also a factor in high altitude wine. It’s pushing ‘vine line’ higher, opening up previously unheard of wine regions, like the high plateaus of China. New clines are becoming increasingly viable.
From the 30th parallel – or less
This tends to be vineyards located on the high plateaus of Chile, Argentina and China. For example Limarí in Chile or La Salta, Argentina are close to the equator at 25-30 degrees south. El Porvenir is the highest, quality winery in the world, in La Salta, Argentina.
In places like these, the permanent snow line is well above 4500m and the high altitude vineyards begin at 1500m. Similar locations can be found in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico.
These vineyards can combine mass production such as the Malbec of Mendoza region or in Tibet. Here vines combine all the goodness of high altitude with commercial viability.
Around the 45th parallel
In Europe, which hugs 45 degrees north, very few vineyards reach 1000m. Here we’re looking at wine produced from 500m high, grown on slopes to capture the most sunshine.
These vineyards cannot be accessed with heavy machinery due to their steep slopes. It’s for this simple reason most of these vineyards tend to be more sustainable by nature.
High altitude viticulture is not for the fainthearted. Apart from the sheer impracticality of farming on a mountainside, there is a great risk of frost damage, more exposure to certain vine diseases and mostly the problem of not getting grapes fully ripe due to cold winds.
Often the wine is produced with the local grapes which have adapted to the harsh conditions. Petite Arvine, Cornalin, Savagin, Humagne, Altesse for instance are among the most delicious and resilient mountain grapes varieties you may have never heard of.
High elevation vineyards round the 45th parallel reconnect us with our ancient farming roots. They bring us back to a time before industrialised agriculture changed vine growing. Really high elevation vineyards of Europe should be put in a museum, preserved as a living memory.
Throughout Italy, Germany, Spain, France and Austria vineyards started to flourish during the Roman Empire, whether on the land around the villa of a retired legionary or along busy Roman roads. Indeed, most of the elevated vineyards were planted during their expansion by Roman settlers.