Due to Climate Change, This French Wine Region Embraces New Heights

Dentelles de Montmirail in Southern Rhône
Dentelles de Montmirail in Southern Rhône / Shutterstock

Romane and Le Pas de l’Aigle are two mountainous stretches of land at the precipice of the Gigondas appellation. When purchased by Pierre Amadieu in 1950, they were “definitely not” advantageous vineyard sites, says Pierre’s grandson Jean-Marie Amadieu, a winemaker at the family winery, Pierre Amadieu. Upward of 1,300 feet in elevation, they are among the highest vineyards in Gigondas, an appellation better known for alluvial plains on the valley floor or low-elevation hills near its eponymous village.

Facing north and in the shadows of a craggy limestone outcrop known as the Dentelles de Montmirail, these high elevation, cool-climate plots were “a difficult place to ripen grapes,” he explains. Still, in spectacular vintages, the blue marl and limestone vineyards could produce spicy, complex wines.

Climate change brings complex problems to wine regions around the world, but for the winery Pierre Amadieu, it brought unexpected blessings, too. With rising annual temperatures, once marginal vineyards flourished, ripening grapes fully and with unprecedented speed.

“Compared to when I was young when harvest began at the beginning of October, we harvest a full month earlier these days,” says Jean-Marie. It’s an outcome that Pierre Amadieu hadn’t intended, says Jean-Marie, “but we are very grateful to our grandfather,” he says.

Generous and concentrated yet finessed by a uniquely cooler microclimate, wines from these once-troublesome vineyards are now benchmarks for the domaine.

Steep vineyards in Southern Rhône
Steep vineyards in Southern Rhône / Photo by Inter-Rhône Christope Grilhé

The New Normal

Historically, elevation was not a defining characteristic of the Southern Rhône. From the vast expanses of the Côtes du Rhône to cru appellations like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras, much of the region is characterized by rocky flatlands where ample sunlight pumps richness and alcohol into the wines. Even elevations less than 500 feet above sea level could, in cooler times, be considered marginal for grape growing.

Domaine de l’Amauve is situated in the lower terraces of Séguret, a scenic hillside appellation in the foothills of the Dentelles de Montmirail, north of Gigondas. Ancestors of Christian Voeux, the domaine’s current owner and winemaker, have grown wines there since the French Revolution. But until just 40 years ago, he explains, vines were rarely grown higher than 492 feet.

“In the past, altitude was not considered an advantage for winegrowers in Séguret,” says Voeux. “High altitudes would delay the maturity of grapes… When maturity was finally achieved at the end of September or October, heavy rains would come, affecting the quality of grapes.”

Over the last two decades, however, climate change has shifted norms like these. Throughout the Southern Rhône, a steady annual increase in temperature has expanded the possibilities for viticulture into a diversity of hillside terroirs rimming the valley. On the other hand, grapes pushed to extreme ripeness in shorter ripening cycles are yielding blowsier wines with lower acidity levels.

The freshness and finesse that lent balance to the opulent wines of the region are jeopardized. Meanwhile, heat waves and drought in the summer and unpredictable spring frost threaten the sustainability of winegrowing itself.

“It’s going to be an adaptation [for winegrowers] which will allow us to keep making balanced wines,” says Louis Barruol, president of the Gigondas growers’ syndicate and the proprietor of the historic Château de Saint Cosme. Higher altitude vineyards are “considered one of the many answers to global warming, for sure. But there is no miracle.”

Vineyards in Southern Rhône
Shutterstock

Elevation, Microclimates and Wine

The successful ripening of grapes depends on a panoply of factors; elevation is just one. A vineyard’s exposure and orientation to the sun, its gradient, latitude, airflow and surroundings all contribute to its microclimate.

At higher elevations, however, temperatures are typically lower. Cooler climates slow the onset of budbreak, the spring awakening of vines from winter dormancy, and give grapes a longer, steadier curve to maturity. Temperature also impacts ripeness—whether and how grapes amass enough sugar to achieve desired alcohol levels, but also flavor ripeness and phenolic ripeness of skins and tannins.

At more than 6,200 feet, Mont Ventoux is the highest peak in the Southern Rhône. While best known as the mountainous ascent in the Tour de France, it is also the home of Ventoux appellation. “Climate is at the core, the very identity of what Ventoux is about,” explains Frédéric Pesquié, a third-generation owner and winemaker of Château Pesquié. Ventoux is one of the coolest wine growing regions in the Southern Rhône.

A Guide to the Wines of the Southern Rhône

Vines are currently planted at elevations between 820–1,640 feet. The region’s climate is not defined strictly by altitude though, explains James King, a winemaker and owner of Château Unang, also in Ventoux. Beyond altitude, he suggests, the influence of air currents that flow down from surrounding hills and Mont Ventoux, and “the surrounding forest provid[e] a reservoir of cooler air that glides down through the vines at night.”

This distinctly cool microclimate allows grapes to obtain “full aromatic ripeness and full phenolic maturity but we still have a good acidity and a good balance in the wines,” says Pesquié. Just a few hundred feet in elevation “make a big difference in terroir and the climate,” says Anaïs Vallot, the fifth-generation owner of her family estate, Domaine Vallot.

“Climate is at the core, the very identity of what Ventoux is about,”—Frédéric Pesquié, owner and winemaker of Château Pesquié

The domaine is one of the most historic in Vinsobre, an appellation that reaches upwards to the foothills of the Alps at roughly 1,000 feet in elevation. “The effect of the Mistral [cold winds funneling through the valley from the north] is intensified at higher elevations,” she says. “And there’s a big difference between the maturity between one part [of the estate] and the other.”

Higher elevation terroir can dramatically alter the expression of wines in the Southern Rhône. “We are in the South and with grapes like Grenache we have zero problems for richness, or wines with a lot of flesh and fat,” says Stéphane Vedeau, owner and winemaker at La Ferme du Mont, a domaine that produces wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras.

His “personal quest” for freshness led him to purchase a hilltop estate situated 1,345 feet above sea level in Valréas. “At the extreme limit of the border of the Southern Rhône and at the highest elevation possible,” he says, the wines from Valréas are better understood as an extension of the Northern Rhône rather than the south.

With limestone soils and an eastern exposure, these cool microclimates are a rare and “magical find.” At Clos Bellane, Vedeau’s white wines, particularly Marsanne, are “a tribute to minerality,” he says.

With pH levels as low as in Champagne, thus higher levels of acidity than typical in the region, “they have a freshness and precision unlike anything you’d expect from the Southern Rhône.” Grenache and Syrah grown at Clos Bellane, Vedeau explains, suggest notes of “truffle, gun powder, cacao bean and black olives,” characteristics more reminiscent of Hermitage than Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Looking out at Mount Ventoux
Looking out at Mont Ventoux / Photo by Inter-Rhône Christope Grilhé

Challenges of High Elevation

With all of the advantages come distinct challenges to high-elevation winegrowing in the Southern Rhône. Just north of the village of Gigondas, at an elevation of 850–900 feet and shadowed by the Dentelles de Montmirail, Château de Saint Cosme has a uniquely cool microclimate.

“You get the fresh temperatures coming down from the mountains without the drawbacks of being in [too high of an] altitude,” says Barruol. There are reasons, he cautions, that “our ancestors did not go in altitude… You want to go a little farther, but not too high, because nature might have revenge,” he says.

Indeed, spring frost has been at the forefront of issues faced by many winegrowers in higher elevations.

For the next decade, Pierre Amadieu will be planting new vines along terraces built at over 1,700 feet in elevation, the highest vineyards anywhere in Gigondas. But elsewhere in the Southern Rhône, strict environmental protections prohibit that.

Frost in 2017 and 2021 had devastating effects in the Southern Rhône, particularly in areas like Ventoux. With earlier budbreak, vines develop delicate shoots that are caught dead when hit by sudden bouts of spring frost, Pesquié explains. Experience gained from 2017, however, helped both Pesquié and King mitigate damage in 2021 by delaying pruning, and thus vine development, until after the threat of frost passes, especially in earlier ripening areas or lower gradients where cool air stagnates.

Other winegrowers find that their higher elevations sites are better protected from frost. Maison Lavau, a family winery that owns four domaines spanning the Southern Rhône including Domaine La Decelle in Valréas, is one.

According to Frédéric Lavau, who helms the operation with his brother Benoit, in recent occurrences of spring frost, it was “vineyards on the valley floor,” particularly Château Maucoil, their estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, that experienced “losses of 30–100%,” he says, while “everything that was going uphill was alright.”

The Differences Between High- and Low-Elevation Wine

Looking to the Future

As climate change confronts the sustainability of grape growing in the historic flatlands of the Southern Rhône, how much more elevation is left to explore?

For the next decade, Pierre Amadieu will be planting new vines along terraces built at over 1,700 feet in elevation, the highest vineyards anywhere in Gigondas. But elsewhere in the Southern Rhône, strict environmental protections prohibit the destruction of most forestland for vineyard expansion, says Jean-Pierre. “There isn’t much left in high altitudes to buy,” he says.

King suggests that for consistent results and ripeness, vineyards planted at more than 1,640 feet on Mont Ventoux may be too high. Pesquié, on the other hand, sees room for upwards movement still. “I’d be surprised [if], within 10–15 years, we don’t see the first vines planted at [2,300–3,280 feet], maybe even before that,” he says.

More than just pushing growers to higher altitudes, it’s likely that climate change will take winegrowers in a multitude of new directions beyond altitude: to northerly latitudes and expositions away from the sun, to plantings of new grape varieties and shifts in vineyard management.

“There are many things to change,” says Pesquié, but by exploring “all the elements we need to adjust [and] fighting to diminish the effects of climate change,” hopefully, we will be “in better conditions for the next 20, 30, 40 years down the line.”

Published on September 7, 2021
Topics: Climate Change