About high-altitude wine
"Terroir" is a word much bandied around in wine circles. It refers to the influences that geology, soil, climate and other environmental factors have on grapes grown in specific sites.
Generally speaking, grapes grown in hot regions ripen faster and more fully than those from cooler places, developing more sugar which converts to alcohol during fermentation. Cool regions achieve higher acidity and lower sugar and alcohol levels, while damp climates make grapes more susceptible to damaging moulds and mildews. The effect of altitude is also very significant.
Temperature falls by about 0.6 degrees centigrade with every 100-metre rise above sea level, and although vineyards at high altitudes are exposed to more hours of sunlight than those at lower levels, the diurnal range (the difference between day and night temperatures) increases the higher you go, which means the grapes undergo a longer, more even ripening period, leading to more balanced and fresher wines. In addition, vines whose roots struggle to find water and nutrients in the stony soils typically found on slopes, especially those at altitude, produce grapes with better concentration than those from deep alluvial soils which retain more water.
Wine-making monks in Burgundy discovered centuries ago that grapes grown on the hillsides made wine with more elegance and freshness than those from the valley floors, leading to the Grand Cru and Premier Cru classification of the finest vineyards (and most costly wines) that we still use today.
More recently, growers all over the world where grapes were historically grown at lower levels and/or on flat ground, have been moving plantings to higher levels. This is partly due to a shift in tastes from wines with heavy fruit and high alcohol levels to those with more delicacy and less alcohol; it is also a response to climate change which has seen global temperatures rise. Higher altitudes also have colder, drier winters, which help to kill off pests, while vineyards on slopes have greater airflow, which also keeps disease at bay. As the demand for organic and sustainably produced wines grows, we can expect to see more wineries turn their attention to more elevated, breezy land which reduces the need for spraying grapes with chemicals to keep them healthy.
In addition, studies researching unusually large concentrations of centenarians in regions of Sardinia suggest their modest consumption of red wine could be a key to old age – vines at high altitudes are exposed to higher concentrations of UV radiation which stimulates the synthesis of polyphenols, antioxidant compounds which are believed to protect against heart disease. Wines made at high-altitude terroirs are not necessarily better than those from lower levels, and they won’t make you live forever, but their qualities of finesse and freshness make for very good drinking.
The best high-altitude wines to try…
This top-notch malbec from one of Argentina’s most revered winemakers has brambly, spicy fruit with a snappy freshness. Great with anything meaty such as beef and long-stemmed broccoli fajitas.
Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley is some 1,000m above sea level: perfect with harissa spaghetti.
Sauvignon blanc blended with viognier and a little chardonnay from South Africa’s second-highest vineyard: bright and breezy and just the thing with crispy fish sandwiches with spicy tartare.
The floral fragrance and exotic fruit of Argentina’s star white grape, torrontes, sits well with spices. It would be bang-on with a prawn and black pepper curry.
From the highest vineyard in Europe, 1,400m on the island of Cyprus, this is made from the native xynisteri grape. Gently oaked for richness – try it with creamy dishes such as mushroom stroganoff.