Back in the 1960s, a major coffee company scored gains in recognition and sales with an advertising campaign emphasizing that its coffee is mountain grown. What the ads didn’t mention is that most – if not all – coffee beans are mountain grown. The impression was that higher is better.
Is Higher Better?
Coffee from cultivation alongside or atop mountains benefits from altitude advantages not always found on ground-level plantations. These include a frost-free climate, moderate rainfall and abundant sunshine. Cooler upper air helps foster a slower growth cycle and prolonged bean development, yielding more pronounced flavors - all of which underscores the parallel between coffee and wine. Long before coffee garnered public attention for its agriculture, wine was produced by a similar viticulture.
As with coffee plants, vineyards flourish with higher quality grapes on the tallest part of an appellation. But unlike coffee, the majority of grape vines are harvested from flatlands or terraced hills on slightly elevated terroir. Steep mountainsides that bear grapes from high up are located, for example, at Mosel and Rheingau in Germany; Rhone and Cote in France; Sicily, Alto Adige, Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy; Douro in Portugal; Mendoza in Argentina and Santa Cruz in California. (Learn more in "Salta, Argentina, Land of the Highest Vineyards.")
Key elements in the elevated version of winemaking are air flow, water movement, erosion and ease of harvesting, known as harvestability. The latter is urgent because it can get hazardous for hand-picking or operating machinery if the slope is too steep.
Major Factors in Vineyard Elevation
The topography of a site is an essential factor in grapevine growth, as defined by these fundamentals:
North-Facing Vineyards Need Cool Summers
Elevation influences air temperature. Typically, lower elevations are preferable at high latitudes, and vice versa. At higher levels, the growing season is shorter and the possibility of frost is prevalent.
Since grapevines are temperate-climate plants, the most productive regions are concentrated between latitudes of 30 and 50 degrees. This range produces the right combination of sugar and acid in grapes used in top-shelf wine.
The slope of a vineyard refers to the degree of inclination. For instance, a 5-foot fall on a 100-foot horizontal space amounts to a 5 percent slope. Ideal sloping allows cooler breezes to drain into lower levels to reduce the risk of frost and freezing. Proper air circulation also promotes faster drying to protect against disease and rot.
The vineyard faces help determine exposure to sunlight and heat. North-facing vines are productive where summers are cool and growing degree days are few. South-facing vineyards warm sooner in the spring, causing buds to break earlier. Eastern direction also brings faster early warming that causes buds to break sooner. Western slopes are a favorite for late-maturing wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
Some mountain soil has less nutrients, meaning fewer grape clusters on the vines. Upper level vineyards also contain less and smaller berries, along with reduced topsoil because it has been washed downhill over the years. Smaller berries, in turn, result in wine with a firm structure, intensity and better aging potential. For example, Cabernet grapes are so small that they resemble caviar after they are processed. (Learn more in "Soil Types and the Grapes That Grow Best in Them.")
Stratovolcano Turns Mount Etna Soil Extra Rich
A virtual tour of vineyards that benefit from hillside positioning begins in Sicily, Italy’s largest island and prolific source of fine wine. Blessed with consistently bright sunshine and moderate rainfall, Sicily’s classic Mediterranean Climate supports its claim as the country’s leading wine supplier. (Read on in Discovering Italy's Island Wines.")
Dominating Sicily’s eastern skyline, Mount Etna is surrounded by stratovolcanic-enriched soil that nourishes such in-demand grapes as Trebbiano, Marsala and D’Avola. In the late 20th century, the Italian government offered subsidies to local winemakers for pushing their vines higher along Etna’s 10,991-foot slopes. Thousands of converted acres thus benefitted from the cooler airflow and richer soil to turn out more top-of-the-line wine.
From Italy to Greece, where hillside vines thrive on the idyllic island of Santorini. Limited rainfall, intense sunshine and harsh winds that impede winemaking in other appellations are found here, where grape varieties such as Assyritiko prosper in the challenging environment.
Fog, Mist Add Briny Imprint To Greek Wine
Centuries ago, a volcanic eruption sprayed the island with lava and ash, infusing the terraced soil with a component that has prevented attacks from the phylloxera pest, which caused The Great French Wine Blight in France. (Read on in "How the Great French Wine Blight Changed the Global Wine Industry.")
Rain falls mostly during the winter, meager showers the rest of the year, plus a regular nighttime foggy mist endows Santorini vines with all the moisture they need. The ever present mist, likewise, is credited for infusing local wine with a pleasant briny imprint.
Over to Switzerland, where 40 levels of terraced grapevines embrace the Alpine atmosphere of shimmering Lake Geneva. The country’s ubiquitous chocolate and cheese overshadow the limited wine output. Cistercian monks originally planted grapevines along the pine-covered slopes, but farmers took over later to modernize and multiply the wine production.
The Cistercians favored red wine, but growers eventually added more whites to better showcase the varieties from seven appellations that include the distinctive Grand Cru. Swiss wines are somewhat unique due to their alpine and glacial viticulture.
What’s a winemaker to do when his vineyards have no room to grow? One option, if possible, is to head for the hills and join the breed of producers who are tapping a relatively new terroir of mountain-grown grapes – a relatively new frontier where old wine becomes new. (Read on in "How Terroir Affects Wine.")