Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Wines of Altitude

Great wines share some common denominators, factors that directly impact their greatness. Among these, Altitude. Altitude makes great wines and it has always been a key element in vineyard selection, affecting wine style, ripeness, freshness, acidity, tannin and flavor.

All of us know that a successful wine usually comes from the right matching of location, climate and vine variety, a concept known as Terroir. Certain grapes require extra or less warmth, specific types of soils, sunlight and good drainage. Solar radiation, temperature variation, ventilation and winds all come into play when growing grapes. Depending on location and climate, altitude affects the amount of direct sunlight that vines receive, which affects their phenolic concentration and acidity. Altitude wines normally have more weight, acidity and structure from the valley floor counterparts, a direct result of the amount of sunlight they receive.  Sunlight increases with elevation, as UV rays intensify with each 1,000 feet increase. Sunlight and wind exposure also affect tannins, forcing the grapes to produce thick grape skins that provide color and structure to wines. Thicker skins protect grapes from extra solar radiation, from brave winds and from temperature changes that take place at higher elevations. Here is where the famous nocturnal/ diurnal shift of warm days and cool nights is important, because it allows grapes to keep their acidity adding complexity and elegance, which are essential in fine wine production. The temperature shift also promotes a long and slow maturation that will allow grapes to develop more compounds, expressing even more grape flavors.

Altitude also affects drainage, though storms can hit these vineyards hard, because of their inclination, water usually drains to the valley floors, reducing moisture and preventing fungal diseases. The lack of water will force vines to dig their roots deeper into the floor, gathering all types of nutrients and minerals. The water stressed plants usually focus their attention on the development of fruit and not so much on green foliage, which happens with water excess. Of course elevation and inclination has its costs, as most work has to be done by hand.  And all of  this is, not even considering climate change and its effects on viticulture. As global temperatures rise, growers won’t have a choice but to go higher, in order to continue creating the styles of the past when vintages weren’t so warm. This happens because temperatures drop one degree Celsius for each 100 meters of altitude increase.  This is also the reason why winemakers are currently experimenting by planting vines at different altitudes.

But, what is considered a high altitude vineyard? For Europeans high altitude vineyards are those planted at 500+ meters (about 1,640 feet), however in South America where we can find the highest of vineyards (most of which are in Argentina), the minimum starts higher, at 1000+ meters (about 3,280 feet). 

And now to my 3 recommendations from Bodegas Colomé. Founded in 1831 in the heart of the Calchaquí Valley, in Salta, Argentina, Bodegas Colomé is not only the oldest commercial winery but also owns the World’s highest commercial vineyards, planted at 10,300 feet. What can one expect from wines coming from such high altitudes? For starters, deeper colors, concentrated fruit, elegance and fresh acidity and in the case of reds, great tannic structure. Try them and you will discover this is indeed true. And if you have extra $$$ to spare, also try their fabulous flagship wine: Colomé Salta Altura Máxima 2014 tasted at the last Wine Spectator event, an outstanding super Malbec from the highest vineyard of the world. $130

Bodega Colomé Torrontés 2023, $14

Torrontés, the floral and exquisite white grape from Argentina, produces an enticing wine from grapes grown in La Brava vineyard planted at 5,575 feet. This full bodied white displays delicious rose, geranium and grapefruit notes, with lively acidity and a very vibrant finish.

Bodega Colomé Estate Malbec 2021, $27

This delicious 100% Malbec was made with grapes grown from four different vineyards featuring altitudes of 5,575, 7,545, 8,530 and 10,300 feet respectively. This seductive tinto shows violet, cassis, blueberry preserves, dusted cocoa and black pepper notes. Very polished, with the right balance of fruit, tannin and length. 

Bodega Colomé Auténtico 2021, $42

This single vineyard 100 % Malbec is harvested from one of Colomé's best sites located at 7,545 feet. Auténtico is savory, displaying succulent and ripe black currant, black cherries and plum pudding notes mixed with spicy clove, chocolate and graphite hints. A good combination of concentration and finesse. 

 Hoping you will soon give these all a try! Cheers, Silvina

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