Lake County Seeks to Elevate High Altitude Wines

Ed. note: This article was originally published in Wines & Vines, August 2007. You can also download a scanned version (PDF) of the printed article.

What are the characteristics of winegrapes grown at high elevations? What qualities do those grapes express in wines? Should wineries market these wines as originating from high altitudes?

These questions were discussed on June 14 at an altitude of 2,000 feet in Snows Like Vineyard in Northern California’s Lake County, at a symposium featuring speakers from as far away as Australia, Italy and Argentina.

Ernesto Bajda of Bodega Catena Zapata in Mendoza, Argentina, spoke of the positive effects of high elevation sites on his company’s Malbec vineyards. He presented three Catena Zapata Malbecs for tasting, and showed the results of his research on the grapes that made them, grown at altitudes between 2,850 and 5,000 feet.

His research showed that:

  • Harvest-time minimum and maximum daily temperatures were lower at the higher elevations.
  • Total anthocyanins increased dramatically with higher elevations.
  • Total tannins went steadily up with higher elevations, while bitter monomeric tannins decreased.
  • Malic acid retention was 2–3 grams per liter higher in the 5,000 feet fruit than the 2,850 fruit.
  • Sunlight is more intense at higher elevations, resulting in increases photosynthesis and production of resveratrol.
  • Skins were five times thicker at 5,000 feet than at 2,850 feet.

These attributes produce high-quality wines, but sometime they are too much of a good thing. Leo McCloskey, president of Enologix, discussed several California regions producing highly rated and high-priced wines, and demonstrated that Lake County wines, mostly grown at higher elevations than Napa and Sonoma, are more tannic, which hurts their acceptance in the marketplace.

Randle Johnson, director of winemaking at Bodega Colome, a high-elevation Hess Collection property in Argentina, said that not only is high-elevation grapegrowing complicated, it’s also very expensive.

Developing a mountain vineyard presents challenges, including power supply, water rights, environment impact reports, erosion, rootstock selection and varietal choices. Pressure from insects, birds, rodents, wild pigs and coyotes is often more intense.