How High Elevation Wines are Taking Spain to New Heights

One of the most important components in an elegant wine is the region's terroir. Learn how elevation is being used to create a unique Spanish style.
Photo by Jens Johnson

If you stand atop a plateau in the eastern reaches of the Ribera del Duero wine region, you might not realize that the Tempranillo vines you’re admiring are doing their thing at upwards of 3,000 feet elevation above sea level. Same goes for the old-vine Moscatel that grows in the mountains north of Málaga, or the Mencía in parts of Bierzo.

As winemakers throughout Spain strive to produce wines of greater elegance and freshness, elevation is proving to be the most important ingredient of regional terroir. From established regions like Rioja and Ribera del Duero to lesser-known places that include Somontano and the Canary Islands, high-elevation vineyards are where Spain’s leading winemakers seek the grapes they’ll choose to convert into liquid gold.

Here’s an in-depth look at the Spanish wine regions where elevation matters most, along with top-rated recommendations from some of the highest points in their respective regions.

High elevation wines: Terroir Al Límit 2014 Dits del Terra (Priorat), Tosalet 2013 Vinyes Velles Carignan (Priorat) and Celler Pasanau 2012 Finca La Planeta (Priorat).
From left to right: Terroir Al Límit 2014 Dits del Terra (Priorat), Tosalet 2013 Vinyes Velles Carignan (Priorat) and Celler Pasanau 2012 Finca La Planeta (Priorat) / Photo by Jens Johnson

Priorat

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Based on appearance, one might assume that the Priorat region in Catalonia, one of the hilliest and most hardscrabble wine regions in Spain, is also one of the country’s highest. Just look at the stunning Montsant bluff that sits sentinel over the region. And how about those steep hillsides in villages like Torroja del Priorat and Porrera, the ones with 100-year-old bush vines of Garnacha and Carignan that go all the way to the top? Those peaks must be 5,000, maybe 6,000 feet high, right?

Well, not exactly. In Priorat, about 80 miles southwest of Barcelona and only about 25 miles inland from the Mediterranean, the optics can be misleading. While not as elevated as, say, the vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina, or those in the shadows of the Dolomites in northeast Italy, Priorat looks and feels like a serious mountain region. Yet, its vineyards span from as low as 325 feet up to about 2,400 feet, where Celler Pasanau’s highest plantings peter out at the base of the Serra de Montsant.

According to Dominik Huber, the German-born winemaker and founder of Terroir Al Límit, there are two ways to produce wines with freshness in a hot region like the Priorat.

One strategy is to harvest fruit from the highest-elevation spots, where nighttime and morning temperatures are coolest, while the other is to rely on vineyards with north-facing exposures that shield grapes from the burning afternoon sun.

While Huber’s Les Tosses (2,100 feet) qualifies as a legitimate mountain wine, his Dits del Terra, which is made from grapes grown at about 1,300 feet and retails for about a third the price of the Les Tosses, is agile and shows remarkable finesse.

Terroir Al Límit 2014 Dits del Terra (Priorat); $90, 95 points. This Carignan welcomes you with fresh berry aromas that are like jam, accented by spice notes. Secondary aromas of coffee and toast lead to a full, saturated palate with a vise grip. Deep, savory flavors of roasted plum are spicy on a complex finish that blends power and elegance to the end. Drink from 2018–2030. Varietal Carignan; highest vineyards 1,300 feet. European Cellars. Editors’ Choice.

Tosalet 2013 Vinyes Velles Carignan (Priorat); $90, 92 pointsFlush aromas of raisin, blackberry and cassis are ripe through and through. This wine feels tight, with tannic scrape. Spicy, reedy flavors of red plum and berry fruits are textbook for Carignan, while mixed black fruits and fig show on a chocolaty finish. Best from 2020–2025. Varietal Carignan; highest vineyards 2,300 feet. Hammeken Cellars USA.

Celler Pasanau 2012 Finca La Planeta (Priorat); $43, 94 points. Crisp, focused aromas of ripe berry fruits, hot asphalt and spice are potent and excellent. From one of the Priorat’s highest locales (2,400 feet), this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnacha tastes of spicy plum, crushed peppercorn and schist. Warm finishing notes of minerality combined with strong fruit flavors are thorough and complex; drink through 2028. Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnacha; highest vineyards 2,450 feet. Classical Wines.

High elevation wines: Olivier Rivière 2015 Ganko (Rioja), Remelluri 2011 Granja Gran Reserva (Rioja) and Alberto Orte 2008 La Antigua Clásico Reserva (Rioja)
From left to right: Olivier Rivière 2015 Ganko (Rioja), Remelluri 2011 Granja Gran Reserva (Rioja) and Alberto Orte 2008 La Antigua Clásico Reserva (Rioja) / Photo by Jens Johnson

Rioja

Where Elevation Equals Elegance

The Ebro River, the lifeblood of this renowned wine region, cuts a path through the heart of Rioja Alta and forms the southern boundary of Rioja Alavesa, working its way through Rioja Baja en route to the Mediterranean Sea. But the topographical landmark that most defines Rioja is the Sierra de Cantabria, whose bluffs and peaks are a sight to see from medieval winemaking towns like San Vicente de la Sonsierra, Elciego and Laguardia.

Few vineyards extend into the foothills of the Sierra de Cantabria on the north side of Ebro. For the most part, it’s too cool and untenable for grapes. In the case of Remelluri, located in Rioja Alavesa, however, the highest Tempranillo vineyards that Owner/Winemaker Telmo Rodríguez uses for his Granja Gran Reserva sit at about 2,450 feet. Think of these vineyards as the back door to the Cantabria mountains—any grapes farther up will not ripen.

On the south side of the Ebro is the Sierra de la Demanda, where skiers frolic at resorts like Valdezcaray during the winter, and where Mount San Lorenzo measures more than 7,400 feet.

“This is the highest part of Rioja, but because it’s north-facing, you can only plant up to about 550 meters [1,800 feet],” says Patrick Mata, co-owner of Olé Imports. His partner in the business, Alberto Orte, makes wines under the La Antigua Clásico label.

“The Sierra de la Demanda is the tallest mountain chain in Spain,” says Mata. “Vineyards are at least 100 meters [300 feet] higher than in Rioja Alta. The harvest in the Sierra de la Demanda is always three to four weeks after the harvest north of the Ebro.”

The result is wines with racy acidity and core energy.

Olivier Rivière 2015 Ganko (Rioja); $40, 93 pointsHere’s another raring red from Bordeaux-born Rivière that needs time to settle. Ripe aromas are all about fruit, while this wine is clamping on the palate, with a sense of skins one hopes will resolve with time. Peppery plum and wild berry flavors finish with cheek-grabbing tannins and lasting toastiness. Drink 2019–2035. Blend of Garnacha and Mazuelo (Carignan); highest vineyards 1,970 feet. European Cellars.

Remelluri 2011 Granja Gran Reserva (Rioja); $95, 94 points. Alluring aromas of tree bark, licorice root, rose petal and ripe black fruit show elegance. This is a touch grippy and young in feel, but overall it’s showing balance. Deep flavors of plum, cherry, wild berry and vanilla finish finessed by a balance of weight and acidity. Drink from 2019–2032. Cellar Selection. Blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano and other grapes; highest vineyards 2,450 feet. De Maison Selections, Inc.

Alberto Orte 2008 La Antigua Clásico Reserva (Rioja); $24, 90 points. Rooty aromas of sarsparilla mix with red-fruit tones on the subtle nose. This aged Rioja is showing hard tannins and choppy acidity in support of herbal, leafy plum and red currant flavors. Tomato, herb and plum flavors stick out on a traditional, high-acid finish. Blend of Garnacha, Tempranillo and Graciano; highest vineyards 1,800 feet. Olé Imports.

High elevation wines: Valderiz 2014 Juegabolos (Ribera del Duero), Dominio Basconcillos 2014 Viña Magna (Ribera del Duero), Dominio de Atauta 2014 Ribera del Duero
From left to right: Valderiz 2014 Juegabolos (Ribera del Duero), Dominio Basconcillos 2014 Viña Magna (Ribera del Duero), Dominio de Atauta 2014 Ribera del Duero / Photo by Jens Johnson

Ribera del Duero

The Highest of ’Em All

It’s ironic that Ribera del Duero, one of the highest wine regions in Europe, looks mostly flat to the naked eye. The northern Castilian plateau is frequently described as barren, bleak and brutal, due to freezing winters and broiling summers. Elevations here run from about 3,500 feet, along Ribera’s eastern flanks, down to about 2,300 feet near Valladolid, which forms the region’s western border.

Hailing from near Aranda del Duero, the wines of Dominio de Atauta are the products of vineyards planted at nearly 3,300 feet. Atauta’s wines are typically dark and full bodied, but primed by the fresh acidity that’s a hallmark of high-elevation Tempranillo.

Just outside the city of Burgos, at the northern limits of the Ribera del Duero Denominación de Origen (DO), is where Dominio Basconcillos farms grapes at about 3,300 feet. Any impact from the namesake Duero River is negligible because of the northerly location. Instead, the key element of the terroir at Basconcillos is altitude, along with mixed soils that include clay, sand and chalk, which also impact the grapes and resulting wines.

“Basconcillos is a single, 50-hectare [roughly 125-acre] parcel with an average elevation of 1,000 meters [nearly 3,300 feet],” says Stephen Metzler, president of Classical Wines, which imports Dominio Basconcillos into the U.S. “When you step beyond the last row, you are outside the Ribera del Duero DO at its northern extreme.”

Most interesting about producers like Basconcillos and Atauta is that while their wines are powerful and concentrated, they aren’t overweight or out of balance. The altitude of the vineyards safeguards freshness.

Valderiz 2014 Juegabolos (Ribera del Duero); $50, 96 points. Toasty aromas suggest maple, along with a note of sawdust to accompany earthy berry scents. A rich, pure palate is intense but shows balance and comportment. Blackberry, cassis, peppery spice and integrated oak flavors are detailed, with a smooth finish. Drink this full-bodied wonder through 2028. Varietal Tempranillo; highest vineyards 2,625 feet. Regal Wine Imports Inc. Editors’ Choice.

Dominio Basconcillos 2014 Viña Magna (Ribera del Duero); $31, 93 points. Toasty oak and graphite aromas fortify a nose that’s lemony on the surface and ripe and fruity at the base. A creamy, resiny mouthfeel is toughened by hard tannins, while this wine tastes of toasty oak and black fruits. A dark, woody finish is chocolaty and rich. Drink through 2027. Varietal Tempranillo; highest vineyards 3,300 feet. Classical Wines.

Dominio de Atauta 2014 Ribera del Duero; $40, 94 points. A pretty nose shows violet notes alongside leather, blackberry and cassis aromas. The palate is full and edgy, with rubbery tannins that could use some years to resolve. A roasted, beefy flavor profile includes nuances of smoked meat that make this about more than just black fruit. Drink through 2028.Varietal Tempranillo; highest vineyards 3,450 feet. Aviva Vino. Cellar Selection.

High elevation wines: Jorge Ordóñez & Co. 2016 Botani Old Vines Moscatel (Sierras de Málaga), Telmo Rodríguez 2010 Molino Real Mountain Wine (Málaga) and Finca La Melonera 2014 Payoya Negra Ronda (Sierras de Málaga).
From left to right: Jorge Ordóñez & Co. 2016 Botani Old Vines Moscatel (Sierras de Málaga), Telmo Rodríguez 2010 Molino Real Mountain Wine (Málaga) and Finca La Melonera 2014 Payoya Negra Ronda (Sierras de Málaga) / Photo by Jens Johnson

Málaga

More Than Sun and Beaches

Mention Málaga, the Costa del Sol’s largest city, and thoughts will likely drift to sand, sun and surf. But head north and inland from the warm waters of the Mediterranean, and you’ll soon ascend the Sierras de Málaga. Before long, you’ll stand nearly 2,500 feet above sea level, and there will be grapes at your ankles.

These sunbaked mountains offer Malvasia, Syrah and several obscure regional grapes. The leading variety is Moscatel de Alejandria, the best of which grows on twisted vines planted 50–100 years ago, maybe longer.

Although much of the Moscatel production in Málaga is geared toward sweet and fortified wines, Jorge Ordóñez, a renowned Málaga-born and Boston-based importer, and his family bottle Botani, a pleasant dry Moscatel made from grapes grown on rugged 70-degree slopes.

The secret to Botani’s freshness on the nose and palate, according to Victor Ordóñez, Jorge’s son, is that the grapes are harvested by hand from low-yielding, high-elevation bush vines planted as far back as the 1920s.

With respect to sweet Moscatel from Málaga, the Ordóñez clan bottles several wines of differing levels of richness and quality, while the renowned Riojano winemaker Telmo Rodríguez (see Remelluri) is responsible for the delicious Molino Real Mountain Wine.

Not everything that hails from the mountains of Málaga is white and/or sweet, however. Near the postcard-pretty city of Ronda, Finca La Melonera pulls grapes like Syrah, Garnacha and the little-known varieties of Tintilla de Rota and Romé from vines planted up to nearly 3,000 feet. Named after a native breed of Andalusian goat, the 2014 Payoya Negra is dark, chewy and ripe. It’s also focused and refined, evidence that fine red wines exist in Spain’s deep south.

Jorge Ordóñez & Co. 2016 Botani Old Vines Moscatel (Sierras de Málaga); $19, 89 points. A light color and classic aromas of white flowers, citrus blossom and wet stones open this dry Moscatel from Málaga. A lean, crisp palate with lime-like acidity deals flavors of lime, lychee and white pineapple. A low-volume but racy finish is fresh and tangy. Varietal Moscatel; highest vineyards 2,500 feet. Jorge Ordóñez Selections.

Telmo Rodríguez 2010 Molino Real Mountain Wine (Málaga); $60/500ml, 91 points. On the nose, this wine is both woody and a touch oxidized, with clove and ginger notes. In the mouth, you can feel the resiny weight of French oak. Forceful spice, clove and woody flavors are dominant, but with such a long finish and good structure this old-vines Moscatel is singing. Drink through 2023. Varietal Moscatel; highest vineyards 1,800 feet. De Maison Selections, Inc.

Finca La Melonera 2014 Payoya Negra Ronda (Sierras de Málaga); $33, 90 points. Jammy black-fruit aromas push up against raisiny but stay composed. This blend of Syrah, Garnacha, Tintilla and a grape called Rome feels rubbery and pulling, but solid. Blackberry, cassis and chocolate flavors are chewy but focused. Drink through 2019. Blend of Syrah, Garnacha, Tintilla de Rota and Romé; highest vineyards 2,952 feet. Domaine Select Wine & Spirits.

How Spain is Finding Elegance by Breaking from Tradition
High elevation wines: Enate 2012 Merlot (Somontano), Viñas del Vero 2011 Secastilla Garnacha (Somontano) and Viñas del Vero 2005 Blecua (Somontano).
From left to right: Enate 2012 Merlot (Somontano), Viñas del Vero 2011 Secastilla Garnacha (Somontano) and Viñas del Vero 2005 Blecua (Somontano) / Photo by Jens Johnson

Somontano

Freshness Amid Forests

As Spanish wine regions go, lush Somontano is a youngster. Most of its vineyards were planted with so-called “international varieties” like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay during the 1990s.

Somontano is a small region of about 30 wineries located at the base of the Pyrenees Mountains that separate Spain from France. On average, vineyards rise to between 1,150 and 2,450 feet. But scattered throughout Somontano are a few select, high-elevation plantings where the breezes are strong and the nights become quite cool. It’s wines from these properties, which offer bold acidity and a sense of freshness and place, that raise Somontano’s profile.

A prime example of a high-energy, high-quality Somontano wine is the reserve-level varietal Garnacha made by Viñas del Vero, part of the González Byass group. The wine hails from the Secastilla property first planted on a hilltop in the 1940s at about 2,000 feet, which makes it a Somontano original.

“This is the top of Somontano,” says José Ferrer, Viñas del Vero’s technical director and head winemaker. “We bought this property in 2005, but I used to come here as a boy with my father to buy Garnacha to drink at home. When Viñas del Vero wanted to try something more extreme, Secastilla was the place.”

Visiting with Ferrer on a beautiful day this past May, the 48 acres of vineyards at Secastilla were bathed in bright sunshine, buffeted by strong winds. The property, flanked on all sides by conifers that create a sea of green, exudes a mountain-like sense of toughness. “The only place higher [in Somontano] is farther north, in the actual Pyrenees,” he says.

Ferrer and I also tasted several vintages of Viñas del Vero’s prestige red blend called Blecua. In the past, top vintages of Blecua (2001, 2004 and 2005), made from four red varieties that include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, ranked among Spain’s top red wines. While the wine has not been sold in the U.S. for some time, Ferrer is hopeful that the 2010 Blecua will be available in limited U.S. markets by early next year.

Enate 2012 Merlot (Somontano); $40, 90 points. Ripe, stout and smoky dark-berry aromas are spicy and a bit hot. This lush Merlot from a warm year is voluminous and chubby, with heft and full extraction. Spicy, toasty blackberry and cassis flavors come with chocolaty oak, while this is dense, chewy and mouth coating on the finish. Drink through 2019. Varietal Merlot; highest vineyards 1,900 feet. Monsieur Touton Selection Ltd.

Viñas del Vero 2011 Secastilla Garnacha (Somontano); $37, 90 points. Ripe, slightly sunbaked aromas of berry fruits, plum and raisin include notes of vanilla and oak grain. A medium-bodied palate is agile, fresh and juicy. Oak-aided flavors of coffee, mocha and chocolate accent plum and berry fruit. Despite a drawing, dense finish, this high-elevation Garnacha remains upright in stature. Drink through 2023. Varietal Garnacha; highest vineyards 2,300 feet. Gonzalez Byass USA.

Viñas del Vero 2005 Blecua (Somontano); $100, 91 points. Somontano is not exactly prime real estate among Spanish wine regions, but Blecua, a four-grape blend led by Cabernet Sauvignon, is one of the best wines the region has to offer. Smoke, licorice, rooty cola and lemony oak aromas mix with flavors of blackberry, coffee, cola and roasted meats. It’s a bit choppy and hard now, but time will help it along. A classy wine to drink from 2011 through 2016. Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Garnacha and Tempranillo; highest vineyards 1,800 feet. Gonzalez Byass USA.

High elevation wines: Escalada do Sil 2014 Red (Valdeorras), Luna Beberide 2015 Art (Bierzo) and Suertes del Marqués 2015 Los Pasitos Vino de Parcela Baboso Negro (Valle de la Orotava).
From left to right: Escalada do Sil 2014 Red (Valdeorras), Luna Beberide 2015 Art (Bierzo) and Suertes del Marqués 2015 Los Pasitos Vino de Parcela Baboso Negro (Valle de la Orotava) / Photo by Jens Johnson

Bierzo, Tenerife and Valdeorras

Off the Beaten Path

Except for the wine regions that hug the country’s more than 3,000 miles of coastline—places like Rías Baixas in Galicia, the Sherry Triangle in the south and the northerly Basque Country—elevation is a factor throughout Spain.

For example, in the Levante region that includes the Alicante and Jumilla DOs, the Montgó Massif reaches about 2,500 feet. But given the heat and desert-like topography that dominate this part of southeast Spain, the Levante doesn’t feel particularly mountainous.

Elevation is also a deceptively important factor in the interior Galician wine regions of Valdeorras and neighboring Ribeira Sacra, where vineyards cling to the steep banks of the Sil River. Just to the east of Valdeorras is Bierzo, which is technically part of Castilla y León, with hillside vineyards that are home to the region’s signature Mencía.

Beautiful freshness and elegance is expressed in Suertes del Marqués’s 2015 Los Pasitos, which comes from the lava-crusted slopes of Pico de Teide at about 1,300 feet on the island of Tenerife in the Canaries.

“Suertes del Marqués is a tiny spot on the side of a volcano in the vast Atlantic Ocean, situated at just the right elevation and planted with ungrafted heirloom varieties,” says Eric Solomon, founder of European Cellars, which imports the wines of Suertes del Marqués.

In addition to Los Pasitos, which is made from the local Baboso Negro grape, Suertes del Marqués Owner Jonatan García Lima also works with more familiar Canary Island varieties like Listán Negro and Blanco, Malvasia and Tintilla. Across the board, the wines are fresh, lively and the clear beneficiaries of grapes grown in precisely the right spot.

Escalada do Sil 2014 Red (Valdeorras); $40, 90 points. For a different breed of cat, take a look at this blend of Merenzao (Trousseau), Mencía and Garnacha from Valdeorras in Galicia. An elegant, schisty nose displays gamy, savory plum and currant aromas similar to Pinot Noir. A choppy, astringent palate makes this wine less than smooth. Herbal plum and spicy oak flavors are bolstered by racy acidity and finish long and almost citrusy in flavor. Drink through 2022. Blend of Merenzao, Mencía and Garnacha; highest vineyards 2,460 feet. Olé Imports.

Luna Beberide 2015 Art (Bierzo); $55, 92 points. Foxy blackberry and cassis aromas are young and untamed, with a note of wet animal fur. This Mencía is grapy and rich, with a dense, saturated palate. Chocolaty black-fruit flavors finish with hard tannins, lots of residual fruit and a structure that suggests that this wine is here to stay for a while. Drink 2019–2025. Varietal Mencía; highest vineyards 2,950 feet. Grapes of Spain.

Suertes del Marqués 2015 Los Pasitos Vino de Parcela Baboso Negro (Valle de la Orotava); $45, 92 points. Have you ever tried varietal Baboso Negro from the island of Tenerife? Give it a shot and you’ll likely be impressed, as I was. Cherry and plum aromas are in the red zone, while this wine feels crisp and fresh, with edge. Salty raspberry and plum flavors end with racy snap. This is a versatile and elegant food wine; drink through 2020. Varietal Baboso Negro; highest vineyards 1,475 feet. European Cellars.

Published on November 25, 2017
Topics: Wine and Ratings
About the Author
Michael Schachner
Spanish and South American Editor

Reviews wines from Argentina, Chile and Spain.

Michael Schachner is a New York-based journalist specializing in wine, food and travel. His articles appear regularly in Wine Enthusiast, where he is a longstanding contributing editor responsible for South America and Spain. Schachner reviews more than 2,000 wines annually for WE and regularly travels to Chile, Argentina and Spain to keep abreast of the constantly changing global wine map. Email: mschachner@wineenthusiast.net.




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