When we discuss terroir, our conversation typically encompasses everything that affects the vines. Soil, temperature, sun, rain, and wind. But what about altitude? Elevation has an enormous effect on wine growing in so many ways. Entire regions and sub-regions have been defined almost exclusively based on altitude, and its direct correlation to high-end wine growing. The question you may be asking yourself is why? Why does it matter if grapes are growing at 500 feet above sea level vs. 6,000 feet above sea level? Well, you have come to the right place; let us discuss this in more detail.
As elevation increases, so does the intensity of the sun. The grapes at higher elevation are subject to increased levels of solar radiation, and some might argue this makes for complexity not seen in grapes grown in vineyards at lower elevations. Exposure to higher levels of solar radiation have been shown to increase ripeness and thicken skins, offering more extraction during the fermentation process. Cultivating wine grapes at a higher altitude also has the added benefit of providing lower temperatures both day and night, thus not only allowing full ripeness to occur, but never bombarding the fruit with too much heat, or not enough temperature drop at night to allow the vines to rest and maintain acidity in the grapes.
The Texas link:
The Texas Hill Country can no doubt produce wine grapes of brilliant intensity and complex proportions. Anyone who regularly drinks Hill Country Tempranillo, Aglianico, and Tannat can attest. This equates to deeply extracted, intense wines I would put up against European wine any day of the week. Living and working in the Hill Country makes me super proud of what we can do in intense heat without a wide diurnal shift at night.
However, this brings us to the “Grape Capital of Texas,” Terry County, just southwest of Lubbock, Texas. One word can sum up just why Viognier smells and tastes so freaking good from the Texas High Plains. Altitude! Intense sunlight during the day with cool nights to allow the grapes to reach full ripeness and the plants to rest at night. This, in my humble opinion, is what makes Viognier, amongst so many other grapes so very special up in the panhandle. Talented farmers, fast draining soil, and low humidity are all huge factors of course, but the elevation is the magic potion for Texas High Plains fruit. If you imagine some of the finest mountain fruit in Napa Valley coming from vineyards between 1,000 and 2,500 feet above sea level, that is well and good. But Texas High Plains fruit is growing at 3,500- 4,000 feet above sea level. That is pretty darn high, my friends. Blue Mountain Trail Vineyard in the Davis Mountains of Texas is over 5,000 feet above sea level. Talk about intense fruit. I know of a certain winemaker who will be making Cabernet Sauvignon from this very fruit someday. Woot!
Moral of the story is, wine grapes can grow beautifully at all elevations, but there is truly something special about high altitude fruit that makes the wines they produce so grand. If you want to experience the extreme, pick up a bottle of wine with grapes grown at Altura Maxima in Argentina. This particular vineyard sits at 9,849 feet! This is the highest known producing vineyard in the world today. Next time someone asks you if you want to get high, simply reply yes and pull out a bottle of wine made with high altitude fruit. After all, drugs are bad, but high elevation wine is very good!