You may have heard it mentioned that the grapes for a wine were grown at a high elevation. But what does “high altitude wine” mean for the wine in your glass? Does altitude affect wine?
How does elevation affect wines?
There was a debate for many years as to whether or not altitude really affected wine in perceptible ways. Thanks largely to the work of Argentine vintner Nicholas Catena, we now understand not only that elevation does impact vineyards but how. Catena, the owner of Bodega Catena Zapata, has been observing the effects of elevation on Argentine Malbec grapes for more than two decades. Catena Zapata now has the Catena Institute of Wine, dedicated to the study of high-altitude vineyards.
As a general rule, grapes grown under stressful conditions, (like drought or poor soil), have a greater concentration of flavor. The stresses of higher elevation include the intensity of UV rays, cooler growing temperatures and wide swing in temperature between day and night, as well as less oxygen and carbon dioxide than found in vineyards closer to sea level.
The impact of UV rays on wine grapes
Those who study these vineyards believe that one of the most significant impacts of elevation is UV-B. (One of the two types of ultraviolet rays from the sun, UV-B boasts the higher energy levels of the two.) Because the atmosphere is thinner the higher you go, grapes grown at higher altitudes have to find ways to protect themselves from these damaging rays. According to the Catena Institute, the result is not only thicker-skinned grapes but ones with greater aromatics.
For red wines this can mean richer skin extractions. (White wines tend to have very little skin contact during the winemaking process. So although the impact of UV rays on grape skins would have some influence, this characteristic potentially has a greater impact on reds than white wines.)
Other potential vineyard influences
Wines grown at high altitude may have added benefits of well-drained soil, greater sun exposure because of steep vineyards and cooling winds, all of which can impact quality and flavor of grapes. But these attributes depend on the specific vineyard location.
So is elevation wine better?
While it takes more than a high-elevation vineyard to make a great wine, wines that are marketed as high elevation are trying to signal buyers that this wine is vibrant and concentrated and quite possibly a good wine for aging.
Of course, if you like light and easy-drinking wines, altitude wine made from struggling, suffering grapes may not be for you!
What defines high altitude wine?
So how high does a vineyard need to be to qualify as a high-elevation site? That depends on who you ask it seems. Some regions call vineyards situated 1,000 feet, or even less, above sea level as high elevation. But in South America, which boasts the world’s highest vineyards, elevation can be over 9,000 feet.
At The Elevation of Wine, a symposium held in 2007 with international participants representing mountain wineries at every elevation, there was a consensus that it is characteristics rather than a number of feet that defines high-elevation wines.
To accompany my research, I tasted the wines of two California wineries defined as high altitude at 1,800 feet above sea level and 1,000 feet above sea level. Although these heights come nowhere near some of Argentina’s growing regions at 8,000+ feet above sea level, I could definitely see similar characteristics in these California wines to wines grown at far greater heights. I’ve included my tasting notes at the end of the article.
Here’s additional information from The Elevation of Wine Symposium, for anyone who really wants to take a deep dive into the impact of elevation on viticulture.
High altitude grape varieties
Do certain grape varieties do better at altitude than others? Around the world many varieties of grapes – some we aren’t particularly familiar with in the United States, like Greece’s Agiorgitiko – seem to thrive at higher altitudes.
In general, the wine world seems to focus on high-altitude red wines as opposed to whites, since elevation seems to have greater effects on reds than whites. (Remember that wines grown at higher elevations develop thicker skins, an effect that matters more in red winemaking than in the making of white wines.)
The red wines frequently marketed as such in the U.S. tend to be Cabernet Sauvignons, Malbecs and Merlots. However, I’ve read that Cabernet Francs seem to shine at altitude. And from interviewing him for previous articles, I know that American winemaker Bill Easton firmly believes the vineyards of California’s Sierra Foothills are ideal for Syrah. (This region, in eastern California, boasts elevations between 1,500 and 3,000 feet.)
Are grapes grown at higher elevations healthier?
We’ve all heard that there are health benefits to drinking wine. (I’ve even listed the health benefits of wine among the reasons wine is an aphrodisiac.) All grapes contain polyphenols, antioxidants found in wine as well as pomegranate and even chocolate. Some polyphenols, like resveratrol, are linked with heart health, not to mention sexual health. But red wines contain more polyphenols than white wines because much of the wine’s antioxidants are found in the skin and red wines have greater skin contact. (Check with your doctor before consuming any wine if you’re on blood thinners as resveratrol can increase the risk of bleeding.)
Polyphenols in grapes grown at higher altitude
As you may recall, I mentioned that one of the effects of altitude on grapes is that they tend to grow thicker skins. According to a research paper published in the South African Journal of Enology and Viticulture, Cabernets and Merlots grown in high-altitude wine regions have greater antioxidant activity than the same grapes grown closer to sea level.
Is the fact that higher polyphenols in grapes mean benefits to your sex life a reason to start drinking nothing but high-altitude Malbec? Not really. Wine is drunk for the pleasure, not the health benefits. Think of it as an occasional bonus. But now that you have a greater understanding of the impact of altitude on wines, you can appreciate what these wines have to offer when you’re lucky enough to enjoy them.
My high elevation wine tasting notes
Although the most talked about high-elevation wines are reds, white grapes are also grown at altitude with promising results. This California Grüner Veltliner is grown at approximately 1,000 feet in the Sonoma Mountain AVA of Sonoma County. The wine offers powerful aromatics. Aromas include wildflowers and lime as well as toasted oak and butterscotch. Lively and fresh in the mouth, it has great acidity to fit the profile of grapes grown at elevation.
Once again, this wine is grown on Belden Barns estate vineyard in the Sonoma Mountain AVA. And the result is a sensational California Pinot Noir. The mountain winery’s limited-release Pinot offers all the things a wine from high-elevation vineyards is supposed to, big aromatics, great acidity. On the nose, it offers the cherry and cola notes you hope for in Pinot along with sexy spices. Flavors include tangy cherry and a sophisticated earthiness. You could certainly cellar it but who would want to wait?
This wine comes from grapes grown at an elevation of around 1,800 feet on a hillside that straddles the border between Napa and Sonoma counties. Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, It exhibits many of the characteristics you are supposed to find in high-elevation wines. Impressive aromatics include currants and black plums, juniper and a lovely and fresh herb note. A mouth-filling wine with fine-grain tannins, it shows great potential for aging.
This wine is made from grapes grown in the Diamond Mountain district at about 1,000 feet in elevation. (Diamond Mountain is located in northwestern Napa County.) As with the other wines in these tasting notes, it offers remarkable aromatics. Ripe raspberry, espresso and a hint of tobacco on the nose are followed by ripe berries and just a touch of anise on the palate. A well-structured wine, it is once again one you could easily cellar but it sure tastes great right now.
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