You’ve probably heard or seen it before: A wine label reads, “grapes grown on high elevation vineyards.” Perhaps you've heard a winemaker or salesperson brag, “The grapes for this wine were grown on a mountainside.” But what does this mean for the finished product? Do grapes grown at a higher elevation mean the wine will taste better?
The answer is a resounding yes! Here’s why:
Grapes grown at high elevations have three distinct advantages over their counterparts grown on flat ground. First, they get better sunlight. At the higher elevations, grapes are exposed to more sun, which in turn causes the grapes to become more deeply pigmented and concentrated.
Second, they enjoy a higher swing in temperature from day to night. Because of the this, the grapes are slower to ripen, allowing for the development of more complex flavors. Remember, when it cools down at night, ripening slows down. This is critical to the development of the right combination of sugars, acids, and other flavor components for making quality wines.
And third, they are very well drained. High-quality grapes come from vineyards that have to struggle to find nutrients. If the soil is too fertile, the vines will produce an abundance of average grapes. However, when the vine has to travel deep into the soil searching for nutrients, this stresses it in a way that produces a smaller crop of much higher quality grapes.
We've been working with a number of growers who produce exceptional wines from high elevation vineyards since we first began.
One of our oldest relationships is with Shannon Ridge, located in Lake County, California. They grow the majority of their grapes at elevations topping 1,000 feet. Their Petit Sirah is guest favorite and a must try - plus, Petit Sirah is a grape variety that doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves and thrives in this type of growing environment. With big, bold flavor, Cabernet Sauvignon drinkers should take note. If you enjoy white wine, check out their Sauvignon Blanc. It bursts with flavors of ripe melon and citrus fruits. At its price-point, it is the go-to Sauvignon Blanc from California for a few of our wine sales managers.
Traveling over to Italy, just Southeast of Naples, sits a wine region in the hills called Campania. It is here that Melina Pepe of Tenuta Cavalier Pepe makes some outstanding wines from grape varieties that most of us have never heard of. Her entry level white, made from a grape called Falanghina, showcases flavors of melon, citrus and green apple balanced by a refreshing acidity that makes it a perfect pairing for spicy foods or sushi. Perhaps the most famous wine of Campania is Taurasi, a big, bold red, made from a grape called Aglianico grown at elevations upwards of 1,500 feet. Pepe’s Taurasi, which she calls “Opera Mia,” is packed with flavors of dark fruits, spice, and tobacco. These wines typically need a few years of cellaring, but Melina ages her Taurasi at the winery and only releases it when she feels it is ready to drink. Even still, decanting is highly recommended.
Lastly, no discussion of high elevation grape growing would be complete without a mention of Mendoza, Argentina. Home to some of the highest vineyards in the world, Mendoza has attracted the attention of some of the world’s top wineries and winemakers who have opened up shop in the region. One such group is the Cuvelier family, owners of the famed Chateau Leoville Poyferre in Bordeaux. Under their Cuvelier Los Andes label, they produce outstanding Malbec and Malbec-based blends. One of my favorites is their Coleccion blend, mostly Malbec, with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Petit Verdot. With notes of espresso, chocolate, plums and cherries, this full-bodied red pairs beautifully with grilled steak.
Next time you visit your local ABC, be sure to look for these and other wines grown at high elevations - it might just be your new favorite.