Why 'high-altitude' wines are getting so much buzz

Kevin Farrell

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There’s a new wine trend bubbling up this summer. And sure, you can probably get away with just smiling and nodding your way through any conversation about it that may arise. But it just might be worth reading up on so you can impress a date with your seemingly deep wine knowledge. Here’s everything you need to know about high-altitude wines.


Even amateur wine drinkers know that a whole host of factors can affect the final outcome of every bottle of vino. Terroir – the umbrella term covering the makeup of the soil, climate and topography – is a word you’re likely familiar with. But it’s now evident that in addition to the mineral content of the soil, or seasonal precipitation levels, we should all be considering how altitude exerts its influence on wine.

Wines specifically touting the high elevations in which their grapes were grown are beginning to trickle onto the market. Grapes grown at high altitudes differ from the usual crops in that they are often exposed to longer periods of daily, unobstructed sunshine, imbuing vines with more energy that can then be converted into growing fruit. Grapes facing longer sun exposure tend to develop darker pigmentation, almost like a suntan.

High-altitude grapes are also exposed to far more dramatic swings in both daily and seasonal temperature than anything grown in the vineyards located thousands of feet below, near sea level. Grapes grown in these parts encounter heavy snowfall in the winter months, and subsist off of snowcap runoff in the summer. High-altitude grapes have thus evolved into hearty, tough survivors.

Wines made with these souped up grapes are increasingly garnering attention for their bold, lively flavors and the intensity of their aromas. The most well-known among these is of course the Malbec – specifically Malbec cultivated in Argentina’s Mendoza region. Situated at the foothills of the Andes, Mendoza is Argentina’s most famous winemaking region. Altitudes throughout Mendoza, which is roughly the size of Illinois, range from 2,500 to 5,000 feet, unusual for a winemaking region.

But there’s no denying the fruitful results. Malbecs grown here are prized the world over for their high acidity and tannins, robust berry notes and color so deep that it almost appears black. One reason for this is that high-altitude grapes are rarely grown on the sprawling grids of traditional vineyards where mechanical pickers have room to roam. Andean grapes are often still picked by hand instead, ensuring a particular level of quality.

Mendoza is hardly the only high-altitude region currently leaving a mark on the industry, though. Vineyards in Australia, Mexico, South Africa and even Bolivia are pushing their elevated grapes upon an eager audience. And here stateside, Colorado, Washington and Oregon are each home to numerous vineyards that fit the bill.

If you’re not yet familiar with high-altitude wines, you’ve got some time to become acquainted. But don’t take too long. The winemaking industry is one poised to undergo severe changes at the hands of climate change. As temperatures continue to rise at sea level, grapes grown at lower altitudes are increasingly exposed to warmer temperatures. Once grapes reach a certain temperature, they begin to lose their refreshing quality, and wines produced with them can easily taste overripe. As global temperatures rise, you can expect the winemaking industry to climb to higher ground as well, meaning that high-altitude wines will increasingly become the norm, instead of the exception to it.


Kevin Farrell

About Kevin Farrell

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