From the Mosel’s Riesling vines that dip at dizzying 70-degree angles, to the Canary Islands’ arid garia holes that harbor Malvasía, or Norwegian vineyards located at 59º latitude, winemakers push grapes to all kinds of extremes. One of those extremes is altitude. We take a look at six vineyards reaching dizzying heights on each continent (excluding Antarctica), and what effect the altitude has on the wines.
Black Mountain Vineyard, Clunes, New South Wales
4,285 feet above sea level
Dealing exclusively in cool-climate loving Pinot Noir, Jared Dixon of Jilly Wines first set eyes on Black Mountain Vineyard in 2012.
“A friend was leasing the land and making some fantastic sparkling,” says Dixon. “The fruit was outstanding. That, plus the altitude, were a big attraction for me.”
“Cool nights contribute to long ripening periods that help to improve fruit quality. We also get great airflow through the vineyard, which helps to reduce disease.” —Jared Dixon, director and winemaker, Jilly Wines
Dixon had experience in making wines in extreme conditions when he took over Black Mountain’s lease in 2015, as plenty of vineyards are planted at altitude in the region. Located on a gentle, northeastern slope home to gray basalt over granite soils, his primary concerns are birds and powdery mildew. But there are advantages to vine work at such an altitude.
“Cool nights contribute to long ripening periods that help to improve fruit quality,” he says. “We also get great airflow through the vineyard, which helps to reduce disease.”
Mount Sutherland, South Africa
4,921 feet above sea level
“Given that Mount Sutherland Vineyards are so cold and unforgiving, it’s summed up perfectly as the kind of place you send mountain goats [for] boot camp,” says winemaker Kyle Zulch at Super Single Vineyards.
After a stint in Europe, winery owner Daniel de Waal returned to South Africa determined to create the country’s first cool continental winemaking region. In 2004, he planted Syrah on rootstock in the Karoo, a semi-arid desert. It was the first cultivation in the area, which he followed up with Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir and Riesling.
“Given that Mount Sutherland Vineyards are so cold and unforgiving, it’s summed up perfectly as the kind of place you send mountain goats [for] boot camp.” —Kyle Zulch, winemaker, Super Single Vineyards
“Fourteen years on, and people still reckon we’re mad,” says Zulch. “Despite that, we think Mount Sutherland is South Africa’s most exciting vineyard. The fruit itself has very ripe tannin structure, length and is elegant. The con, however, is black frost, as we’re so far inland (217 miles) and so high up.
“We can lose between 50 and 70 percent of our crop each year, even though we have contingency plans, such as fans and fire bins. It’s a labor-intensive operation but when we get fruit—we started picking the 2018 vintage this week—it’s worth everything.”
Tenerife, Canary Islands
5,577 feet above sea level
A local family business since the 1950s, Bodega Frontos’ Tierra de Frontos Blanco Seco Ecológico white wine, made from organic Listán Blanco (Palomino), is sourced from a high-altitude vineyard in the Abona appellation of Spain’s Canary Islands. Vines have been planted in undulating Tenerife since the 15th century. However, climate change means that the Frontones vineyard, located on volcanic and semi-arid soils near Teide National Park, faces numerous challenges.
“There’s no irrigation [at that altitude], and the main problem is climatology,” says co-owner Carlos Luengo. “It hasn’t rained in four years, so production has halved. Plus, there are lots of steep slopes, which makes cultivation hard. What’s undertaken here is often referred to as ‘heroic winemaking.’ ”
There’s an upside to work under these extremes, says Luengo.
“Listán Blanco sourced from this height is 10 times better than the same variety grown at sea level, plus we can produce organic grapes,” he says.
Fox Fire Farms, Ignacio, Colorado
6,479 feet above sea level
“We were told grapes wouldn’t grow in the mountains of southwest Colorado, but we charged ahead anyway,” says owner Richard Parry. In 2004, he and his wife, Linda, made the decision to plant Riesling, Merlot and Pinot Noir across four hectares of their farm in Ignacio, Colorado. Only Riesling survived that first harsh winter, as temperatures often dropped below 0ºF.
Located 30 miles south of the San Juan mountain range, spring and autumnal frosts often prove as lethal as winter weather. Also a functioning sheep and cattle farm, the Parrys had their work cut out on the grape-growing front, but research spurred the couple on.
“We were told grapes wouldn’t grow in the mountains of southwest Colorado, but we charged ahead anyway.” —Richard Parry, owner, Fox Fire Farms
“We’d almost given up our dream until we read about cold-climate varieties being developed at the University of Minnesota and Cornell University,” says Parry.
Today, Fox Fire Farms produces a semi-sweet and a dry Riesling. The cool mountain air also has its benefits.
“We don’t have any disease problems because of our dry climate and the natural disease resistance of the cold-climate varieties,” he says.
Meili Snow Mountain, China
8,530 feet above sea level
“We searched all over China for four years to find terroir, and now we manage four vineyards in four villages: Adong, Xidang, Sinong and Shuori, in Yunnan Province,” says Maxence Dulou, winemaker and estate director at Ao Yun.
The founding of Ao Yun, which translates to “flying above the clouds,” marks a grape-growing first. The LVMH-backed winery has had the honor of planting the first-ever vineyard at the foot of Meili Snow Mountain. It stands a five-hour drive from Shangri-La, where Dulou oversees 314 blocks across 28 hectares of diverse soils.
“Sometimes, we’re above a sea of cloud and, if you’re lucky, it’s possible to see our vineyards through them.” —Maxence Dulou, winemaker and estate director, Ao Yun
“Our main challenges are linked to understanding Tibetan culture, isolation and logistic complications, and adapting to this new, extreme terroir,” he says. Ao Yun’s Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon require extended ripening periods, as the mountain shadows inhibit sunlight.
As a trade-off, cool nights ensure freshness and acidity, and the view is naturally spectacular. “Sometimes, we’re above a sea of cloud and, if you’re lucky, it’s possible to see our vineyards through them,” says Dulou.
Quebrada de Humahuaca GI, Argentina
10,922 feet above sea level
At over two miles above sea level, this is possibly the world’s highest vineyard. Located in northwest Argentina, vintner Claudio Zucchino grows certified organic Malbec, Syrah, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc in the Quebrada de Humahuaca GI, a gorge that formed part of the Inca Road.
Chewing coca leaves to cope with the oxygen shortage is the norm for Zucchino, who makes just one wine, a blend of Malbec, Syrah and Merlot blend called Uraqui (“terroir” in Aymara, an Andean language). He had to construct a single-carriage track four miles up the mountain before he even considered planting vines, the first of many challenges.
“When we have grapes, their quality is incredible and you find different aromatic groups that aren’t present in wine made at lower altitude.” —Claudio Zucchino, vintner, Uraqui
“Guanaco [a camelid similar to an alpaca] is our biggest pest, while vines are exposed to frost, hail and high-mountain winds, delaying maturation,” says Zucchino. “And, we can’t guarantee continuous vintages.”
The upside to extreme winemaking? “When we have grapes, their quality is incredible and you find different aromatic groups that aren’t present in wine made at lower altitude,” he says.
Zucchino also harbors the world’s highest wine cellar. Housed at 12,139 feet above sea level, inside a former barium sulfate mine, it offers stunning vistas over the Quebrada mountain valley.