If you’re a wine lover, no doubt you’ve heard the term terroir. For the benefit of our wine novices out there, this term refers to the site-specific characteristics of a vineyard; including but not limited to soil, rainfall, slope, temperature and sun exposure. These characteristics have a direct impact on the vine and the fruit it produces, and they show through in the wine made from those grapes. So how does altitude impact the grape, and therefore the wine?
At higher altitudes, three important conditions affect vines: higher sun exposure, higher diurnal temperature variation (difference between day and night temperatures), and (usually) increased slope drainage. These conditions make growing hard, but nature doesn’t just work harder; it works smarter.
- Increased sun exposure = increased ripening qualities of the grape
- Low night-time temperature slows down ripening, preserves the grapes’ natural acidity and sugar content.
- Drainage of the slope forces the vines to send roots deep into the ground.
In these conditions, survival is prioritised over fruit production, resulting in a lower yield: quality over quantity. These thick-skinned grapes have a strong colour, high acidity, and more tannins, making the wines well suited to ageing.
The maximum growing altitude depends on the latitude of the region; the closer we get to the equator, the higher it is possible to cultivate grape vines. In Europe, where most vineyards are found at around 40-50 degrees Northern latitude, any vineyard over 500 metres above sea level (ASL) is considered high-altitude. In Australia, 600m ASL is considered high-altitude, accounting for less than 1% of our wines. Argentina has been leading a quiet revolution in high-altitude wine, and their vineyards have the highest average altitude, with 1200m ASL considered high-altitude. Argentina’s largest and best-known wine regions, found in the province of Mendoza, sit at around 30 degrees Southern latitude. Many of Mendoza’s vineyards are set above 1200m ASL. However, to find the world’s highest vineyard, we must travel further north of Mendoza, to a latitude of 24 degrees.
The remote winery of Colome, purchased by Donald Hess in 2001, is nestled near the tiny township of Molinos in the Calchaqui Valley, Salta, North-west Argentina. Molinos is not exactly easily accessible. You must first experience “one of the best ‘off the beaten track’ drives in the world” according to our Argentine tourism expert and wine lover, Joaquin Medrano. Medrano explains, “we travel through the Cardones National Park which was established to protect its famous giant cacti (cardons). The landscape ranges from lush green valleys to grasslands of the puna, then winding through mounds of dirt, sand, and rubble. We reach the small village of Molinos, and continue through surreal and colourful moon-like terrain before arriving at the oasis of Colome.” Here at this colonial estancia, set against the ever-changing colours of the Andes mountain range, majestic condors floating on the thermals overhead, we find the world’s highest-altitude vineyard at 3111m ASL.
Altitude has become a badge of honour among Argentina’s wineries, and it is now common to see this feature displayed proudly on their labels. The unique conditions of these lofty heights are evident in the wines. Colome’s Torrontes are full of sweet, floral aromas with a fresh acidity. Their signature range, Altura Maxima (maximum height) features a 100% Malbec, the super-star of Argentine wine, and a variety well suited to this high-altitude region. These Malbecs are characterised by their intense colour, perfect acidity, and sweet tannins; it’s label proudly states ‘World’s Highest Estate’.
So, next time you pick up a bottle of Argentine wine, check the label to see if they have displayed the altitude. Imagine those vines up on the foothills of the Andes mountain ranges. Imagine the plants sending roots deep into the dry, rocky soil, pumping energy into the grapes through the warm summer days, and resting through the cold, crisp nights. Imagine the thick-skinned grapes and the rich colour of the juice. Take a sip, and taste the Andes; you won’t regret it.