The highest point of one of the most important wine regions in the world is only 131 feet above sea level. It’s Lystrac, in Bordeaux, France. Most of the famous vineyards in the region are much lower, from 33 to 66 feet.
Nevertheless, wines grown at high altitude always show their superior grandeur. What is the difference between height and wine? Depending on the location and climate, the altitude has effects that can determine the style of the wine. Temperature and its variations, solar radiation and intensity, ventilation and drainage – all this before you think of fog lines or climate change.
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Low altitude wine-growing areas
The Médoc, also known as the left bank of Bordeaux, is one of the lowest wine regions in the world. This allowed grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to ripen in climates that are marginal to climate change. At high altitudes it would be too cool, and even vineyards at low altitudes often have difficulty ripening the grapes.
Further north, on the French Atlantic coast, the vineyards around Nantes that produce light Muscadet rarely exceed 150 feet. The very cool vineyards of southern England rarely grow above 320 feet, and those that do have difficulty maturing.
High latitude and coastal vineyards, which are marginal for their respective grape varieties, tend to take advantage of warmer and lower soils. This applies to a wide range of wines, from the light sparkling wines of England to the structured and moving reds of the Médoc.
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In most classic wine regions, such as the Napa Valley in California, the Chianti Valley in Italy or the Saar Valley in Germany, height differences between valley bottoms, hills and ridges can be observed.
Winemakers use these differences to create certain types of wine. Napa’s vineyards range from 200 feet to 2,200 feet above sea level, allowing producers to pursue a variety of styles.
From the ground to the movement of the air through the mountains, the angle and the access to the sun, we are dealing with a very different environment in the mountains than at the bottom of the valley, explains Chris Carpenter, winemaker for the Cardinale, La Jota, Lokoya and Mt. Brave in the Napa Valley. Mountain grapes tend to have higher phenol concentrations, higher natural acidity and an unparalleled structure. The wines have an incredible weight and texture, which allows them to increase their acidity and bone structure.
Florian Lauer of Peter Lauer Winery in the Saar Valley in Germany runs the Ayler Kupp vineyard, which has grown from 490 to 790 vines. The difference in height has different effects.
The designs have more friction on [the base], but they are windier and a little cooler at the top, says Lauer. The sweet wine style is influenced by botrytis (noble rot), and the reduced aeration makes the lower part of the slope susceptible to mildew. This allows Lauer to absorb the Botrytis infection at the desired level.
As the cold air flows downwards, the lower parts of the vineyard are more exposed to spring frost. The ridge, on the other hand, never freezes. The lower surface water, due to the natural drainage, also means less mineralization in the wines. The result is a lower pH, which, according to Lauer, makes the wines more subtle and elegant. The fruits that grow underneath ripen a little and give wines that are loose and ripe.
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Average slope Magical compensation
The altitude of Ivorian vineyards generally varies between 755 and 1,300 feet above sea level. Traditionally it was assumed that the best vineyards were located on the well-drained slope, in an area high enough to catch most of the sun and protected from frost, but not too high, exposed to the wind or wind. Most of the farmers’ grandchildren are in the middle of the slope.
This also applies to many other classic regions. However, climate change is beginning to shift attention. With the rise in global temperatures, growers are striving for higher altitudes to achieve the classic style.
Marcello Lunelli, Ferrari’s vice president in Trentino, Italy, grows grapes at altitudes ranging from 1,300 to 2,600 feet in the Italian Dolomites, producing a lively, invigorating sparkling wine.
Height is the most important factor because we need the right level of acidity so that our wines can age for a long time, he says.
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Some American wine-growing areas (AVAs) in California are also determined by altitude. The height is decisive here, because it corresponds to the fog line.
On the coast of Sonoma, the Fort Ross Sea View offers AVA altitudes from 920 feet to 1800 feet and above. This allows the grapes grown near the cold Pacific Ocean to receive enough light to ripen in a cooler climate. They enthusiastically produce Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with pure red fruit.
Some vineyards, outside the AVA and just in the fog, make the wines even more nervous, radiant and cheerful. The Mendocino Ridge AVA requires an altitude of at least 1,200 feet, and even separate Zinfandels can mature in the higher vineyards.
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High altitude vineyards
Higher altitude means lower temperatures and more aeration, slowing down ripening and maintaining acidity.
In Europe, altitudes above 1,650 feet are considered high. The Austrian Styria, the French Savoy and the Italian Valle d’Aosta are known for their fresh, subtle and expressive wines.
The tallest vineyards in the world are in South America. The Bodega Colome Altura Maxima Vineyard rises from 9,500 to 2,200 feet. Winemaker Thibault Delmotte warns of the extreme conditions at this altitude. Due to spring and autumn frosts, the growing season is short, Delmotte explains.
You can’t age breeds like Cabernet Sauvignon or Petit Verdot, he says. With early breeds like Malbec, the benefits outweigh the problems, he says.
We have ozone in the atmosphere and therefore more ultraviolet radiation, says Delmotte. The fruit must protect itself against this strong radiation by forming a thicker and darker skin. As a result, the wines have a darker and deeper color and a larger tannin structure.
The extreme conditions provide quality fruit and give us a big paradox: a very dark and concentrated wine, but at the same time elegant, fresh and harmonious, he says.
The altitude, which is just one of the many aspects of viticulture, has a different meaning depending on the climate. It is a key element in the selection of the site that has a direct influence on the style, ripeness, freshness and development of the flavors of the wine.
In the wine world, the slopes of the southern Swedish lowlands can be as attractive as the Himalayan heights of Bhutan.
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