Mountain Viticulture in Europe, Part Two

Ed. note: This article was originally published in Vineyard & Winery Management, January/February 2008. You can also download a scanned version (PDF) of the printed article.

Winemaking at a Higher Level

Italy has probably done more research regarding high altitude viticulture among wine producing countries, notably in the Trentino-Alto Adige region, and has probably made more effort to define high altitude, or “mountain” viticulture. Vittorino Novello, professor of viticulture at the University of Turin, Italy said although there is no legal definition, in Italy, mountain vineyards are generally considered to be sites with about 30% slope and altitudes of at least 500 m (1,640′). Vine rows are commonly on ledges on terraced slopes.

In Europe, this would represent about 4% of total vineyard acreage, and based on percentages of vineyard acreage by country, would be about 35% in Switzerland, 20% in Portugal, 9% in Germany, and 2% in Italy. Looking around the symposium venue at the rolling hills of Snow’s Lake Vineyard, Novello said, “Our mountain viticulture is very different from here. This is what we would call ‘hilly’ viticulture.”

Novello provided information from vineyard trials performed in the Trento Province at elevations ranging from 250 m to 700 m [800’ to 2,300’]. In this location, temperature drops 0.5 degrees C/100 m elevation gain [2.75 degrees F. / 1,000’], and Novello said there was an average crop loss of 350g/vine for every 100 m in altitude gain, which was the result of reductions in berry weight and the number of flowers/cluster as elevation increases. He said acidity can also increase with altitude.

In these alpine zones veraison may be delayed by 2–3 days/100 m of increasing elevation. He also cited difference in behavior of plant materials, saying that the higher the altitude, the more the effects on rootstock. “Clones can have different behavior at different altitude,” he added.

Novello summarized, “Quality of ‘mountain wines’ is very high, in terms of sustainability (drier air, less biotic diseases, less sprays), nutrition (more UV light, more polyphenols), taste (more equilibrate composition among sugar, alcohol and acidity, and more aromas).”

On another level, Novello noted that the high elevation viticulture in Europe is considered “heroic viticulture” because of the social and economic challenges growers face, such as dwindling labor sources as the population ages in some of these more remote locations. Mechanization and technology may provide solutions to continue mountain vineyards, but the amount of planted acreage in these locations is decreasing.

Developing and Managing High Altitude Vineyards

Randle Johnson, consulting winemaker with the Hess Collection Winery in Napa and director of winemaking for Bodega Colome in Argentina has been working with hillside and high altitude vineyards since 1977 when he was with Mayacamas Vineyards farming 2,500’ slopes on Mt. Veeder in Napa Valley. More recently he has been developing, managing, and making wine for the Colome label from vineyards ranging from 7,475’ to 9,800’ in Argentina. Johnson provided the following general advice that he called the “Oath of Elevation”:

  • Every site is independent, a whole new world, it’s amplified in the mountains
  • Check your preconceptions at the door.
  • Utilize all resources thoroughly.
  • Strive for vineyard uniformity.
  • Strive to make killer wine.
  • Have a flexible budget (keep a completely open checkbook).

On the last point, he said, “I can’t think of any mountain vineyard that ever came in on budget.”

Expanding on the idea of conditions being amplified in the mountains, he noted that wind is often present, solar radiation and UV light are more intense, and high altitudes have lower night temperatures, and sometimes higher precipitation. Johnson advised collecting and utilizing all available weather data from multiple weather stations, including placing weather sensors and systems at the site before planting, if possible. Data such as temperature highs and lows, degree days, solar radiation, and UV light intensity are very important in the mountains and can differ significantly by site and by elevation on a slope. Site evaluation should include regulatory considerations, feasibility for planting, management and harvest, and responsible viticulture under “the 3 Es” of sustainability.

High altitude sites often have non-uniform soil types, exposures, or weather conditions. This results in vineyards with varying maturation rates, that may require smaller blocks, smaller harvest units and multiple harvests in the same block. Localized soil types influence factors such as soil moisture content and retention, water runoff patterns, and soil/rock heat retention and light reflectivity during the growing season.

Johnson emphasized the need to study soil chemistry and the importance of rootstock choices. “Don’t assume a hillside site is low vigor,” he said. Possible rootstocks for high vigor sites are 1103P, 140R, 110R and St. George, and for low vigor 420A and 101-14. Own-rooted vines even be practical. Own-rooted malbec is used in mountain vineyards in Argentina. He said Bordeaux reds, and Rhone reds tend to do well in mountain vineyards and sometimes pinot noir. For white wines he advised sauvignon blanc and Rhone whites. He recommended planting reds in North-South oriented rows if feasible, be sensitive to wine direction, and size and locate blocks for uniform ripening and appropriate yields for fermenter loads.

Water drainage and runoff must be part of vineyard design, and cover crops may be required for erosion control, but be aware of their devigorating potential. Frosts at higher elevation are always a bigger threat. Deer fencing and protection from foraging animals are often necessary in mountain vineyards. Protecting fruit during maturity from birds and flying insects is an issue. Once birds injure the grapes, bees and wasps are quickly attracted, posing further fruit damage and a hazard to grape pickers. Johnson showed photos of netting tied around individual clusters to protect them birds and insects.

Bodega Colume vineyards are in northern Argentina in the Province of Salta on the east side of the Andes, with an emphasis on Bordeaux reds (malbec, cabernet sauvignon), tannat, and syrah at the higher elevations. Discussing the challenges of winemaking at high elevations in Argentina, Johnson said, “We spend more effort in warming musts than in cooling them. Fermentations take longer, often up to 20 days, due to less oxygen at altitude, and since high elevation musts are generally lower in nitrogen, maintaining good yeast nutrition is a huge issue.”

Australia’s High Altitude, Cool Climate Vineyards

Preeminent Australian winemaker Philip Shaw, who worked at both Southcorp and Rosemount, was a pioneer in developing vineyards in the Orange region, plantings the Koomooloo Vineyard in 1989 that provides all estate fruit for his Philip Shaw Wines brand. Shaw is also CEO and winemaker for the umbrella company Cumulus Wines that produces the Rolling Wines, and Climbing Wines brands as well as Philip Shaw.

The Orange Region, also call the Orange Geographical Indication (GI), is located about 200 km west of Sydney in New South Wales on the slopes of the Great Dividing Range. This is one of the coolest climate growing regions in Australia and has among the highest elevation vineyards on the continent ranging from 1,968’ to 3,608’. Shaw’s Koomooloo Vineyard ranges up to 2,950’.

Shaw said maturity and harvest can be 3 to 4 weeks later at the higher elevations with average differences of 1 week for every 100m (328’) in elevation gain. The summer growing season in the Orange is the wettest time of the year, and average humidity is 30% to 40%. Temperature extremes range from 23 to 95 degrees F.

Shaw sold fruit from the Koomooloo for 12 years before he began making his own wine in 2004. He now produces a chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, shiraz, pinot noir, and a merlot/cabernet franc/cabernet sauvignon blend. Shaw believes merlot is the flagship variety for the Orange region, where cooler climate and high UV light exposure produce quality fruit.

Shaw practices crop load management for some varieties, with a goal of 2 tons/acre (depending on location) in order to harvest earlier, although merlot can be cropped higher (up to 7 tons/acre) and pinot noir at 4 tons/acre. He picks for bright, fruit flavors without excessive Brix or alcohol levels. Chardonnay is picked at about 21.5 degrees Brix and most reds at about 23 Brix. Shaw said, “There are different styles of shiraz in Australia, and not all are like the Barossa Valley higher alcohol style.” He brought a sample of Philip Shaw 2005 Shiraz with 13.2% alcohol.

Temperature and Solar Radiation in Mendoza Vineyards

Ernesto Bajda discussed his experience as an assistant winemaker at Bodega Catena Zapata in the Mendoza region of Argentina with fruit from several vineyards ranging in elevation from 2,820’ to 5,000’. Mendoza is in central Argentina on the east side of the Andes with a desert climate in the rain shadow of the mountain range. He focused on malbec, the main variety produced, of which the winery makes five different bottlings based on difference in the fruit source location and elevation.

Based on trials and analyses of malbec from different vineyard sites, Bajda discussed how different elevations, and related difference in temperatures and solar radiation, affected photosynthesis and the anthocyanin and tannin profiles. He noted that at higher temperatures, above about 90 degrees F., photosynthesis stops.

In the Catena Zapata vineyards, lower elevations mean higher temperatures, and thus, less photosynthesis during the hottest part of the day. “More efficient photosynthesis occurs at higher elevations, because of lower temperatures,” Bajda said. He also said that due to the large temperature changes between day and night at higher elevations, the vines go through less respiration at night, so they don’t consume as much of what is produced by photosynthesis during the day.

Bajda brought sample of three 2004 malbecs from different elevations with data on their polymeric phenol/tannin content that showed that total tannins and total anthocyanins in the wines increase as the grape sources come from higher elevations. The chart below shows the comparison:

ElevationTannins (mg/L)Anthocyanins (mg/L)
860 m9981923
1,180 m18322051
1,440 m24402315


Bajda also said, “We get more rounded tannins at higher elevations due to lower monomeric tannin content.” He discussed how solar radiation, in addition to temperature, can affect wine quality, as the increase in sunlight intensity increases photosynthesis and secondary metabolism, which can increase tannin content and resveratrol content.

However, excess sunlight can create sunburn if the grapes are overexposed. “One reaction to higher solar radiation is that the grapes make thicker skins,” Bajda said. He concluded that solar radiation is one of the main factors that can be controlled in the vineyard, and that leaf removal and fruit thinning in vines in the lower elevation vineyards can help increase solar radiation to increase fruit quality.

Marketing Elevated Wine

A panel presentation, moderated by Paul Wagner of Blazac Communications in Napa, focused on the marketing of high altitude wines (HAW). Ronn Wiegand, M.W., M.S. and publisher of Restaurant Wine magazine, believes a market niche for HAW can develop and grow if the industry is willing to educate consumers. He gave kudos to Cumulus Wines for its efforts in labeling, branding, and marketing its wines to reflect their mountain origins.

Wiegand also notes that Chianti Classicos are a favorite wine for consumers in restaurants and they are basically high altitude sangioveses. Wiegand said, “There is a great deal of awareness about cool climate wines. HAWs are a subcategory, and they also can go good with food listed on a menu. Food friendliness is critical. I look for wines with refreshment and fragrance, and HAWs can have that.”

Wilfred Wong, cellar master for the large retailer Beverages & More! Didn’t think there is currently a market for HAW, but it could be a small market niche. Wong noted that BevMo customers tend to more average consumers. The chain has 66 stores, each with an average of 3,000 wines, and Wong assesses about 8,000 wines a year. “I write notes about wines for promotions and shelf talkers, and I don’t think I’ve ever used the term ‘high altitude,’ but I have said ‘mountain,’” Wong said.

He believe differentiating wines to specifically can be difficult. “I think there are way too many single vineyard wines on the market, when there is not really a big difference between them,” Wong said. He also indicated that HAW needed to be better defined in order to market them. “The focus should be on what are the common factors, or characteristics, that link these vineyards and wines together worldwide. If you can’t find that, then you’ll just be marketing them against other ultra-premium wines,” Wong said.

Jeff Prather, a retailer with The Wine Merchant at Ferry Plaza in San Francisco, didn’t think there was a HAW category yet, but he felt if it was better defined, as in Italy, it would help in marketing efforts. “People sometimes look for mountain wine, they done ask for high elevation or high altitude wine,” Prather said.

He said his customers are more likely to be discriminating in their wine choice based on vineyard locations and management. His customers will ask for wines from sustainable, organic and biodynamic vineyards, so there is room for customer education, and customers develop preferences for certain qualities.

Like Wiegand, Prather is also interested in seeing more wines with lower alcohol, better balance, less oak, and that go better with foods. “One of the reasons I came to this conference was to see whether high altitude growing could bring down alcohol levels, and that hasn’t been solved, because many high altitude winemakers still want to pick later when possible,” Prather said. “There’s room for intensity, without being hit with a sledgehammer,” he explained. As a suggestion for a marketing term or category, Prather offered the word “verticulture.”

Although not discussed by the panel, it should be noted that many examples exist of wineries, through their labeling and individual marketing, and of appellation-based winery associations, that link the concepts of altitude, elevation, and mountain vineyards to their marketing efforts. The El Dorado Winery Association in the Sierra Foothills, which includes 24 wineries located at elevations ranging from 1,200’ to 3,500’ uses the expression “Winemaking at a Higher Level.”

The Fairplay Wineries Association, in the Fairplay AVA in El Dorado County has used the slogan, “Wines with an Altitude” for a number of years. This AVA includes 800 planted acres of vineyards and more than 20 wineries ranging in altitude from 2,000’ to 3,000’. Similarly, Mt. Veeder Winery in Napa County uses the expression “Wines with Altitude,” on its website, and its wine club is called “Club Vertical.”

Many labels have words such as “mountain,” “ridge,” “peak,” or “hills” as part of their wine brand that create consumer perceptions of scenic vineyards growing at various altitudes with accompanying perceptions about the quality and characteristics of wines from these environments. However, the word “valley” also carries strong perceptions of quality when part of a wine brand or as part of an appellation name (Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, Columbia Valley, Barossa Valley, etc.).

Ironically, both geographic terms are sometimes marketed with the same wine on the same label. Wines produced from the Atlas “Peak,” “Mount” Veeder, Howell “Mountain,” or Spring “Mountain” AVAs list these on the label while also listing the larger Napa “Valley” AVA. Marketing expert Paul Wagner suggests that geographic marketing and perceptions can have value for some consumers.

Wagner said, “People buy wine because they want an experience (a vicarious trip to Napa Valley or Italy, for example, through the wine they have with dinner), not necessarily because they want a beverage.”

High Altitude Advisory Group Formed

With the post-conference follow-up, a High Altitude Advisory Group is being formed. People invited to serve on the group are Dr. Greg Jones, Dr. Robert Wample of CSU Fresno, Ernesto Bajda, and Vittorino Novello who would act as a liaison with a European group involved with mountain viticulture research. The Lake County Winegrape Commission will continue to fund some of the group’s administrative functions and planning activities. Symposium attendees were solicited for suggestions on research topics to pursue in the future.

Peter Molnar, the organizer, said the topic of interest listed most was research on the interaction and relationship between UV light intensity and phenolic content and development in grapes at altitude. The second topic of interest was research to further understand how topography affects climatic factors. Molnar said the group doesn’t currently envision becoming a research funding group, but will act as a catalyst to present research ideas to universities and researchers here and abroad, perhaps assist with obtaining grant funding, and help disseminate the results of relevant research.

Molnar said many attendees felt the symposium was useful, because it was something that hadn’t been done yet. “As the first symposium, it was meant to be a survey of what’s been going on to date, and for people around the world to share their experiences,” Molnar said. The symposium also helped form a network of people and expertise, and the advisory group will keep this network of people together to communicate and continue sharing information.

There are plans to hold a symposium every two years, possibly in Lake County again for 2009, or rotated to other areas of the world, as representatives from Argentina and Australia have expressed interest in hosting. In addition, a website continues ( which has an interactive forum available for people to exchange ideas, and Symposium PowerPoint presentations are posted at the site.

When asked of the group would try to define high altitude viticulture, Molnar commented, “It’s a salient question to ask where the effects of altitude start to influence vine and grapes. But it doesn’t seem to be very definable. I don’t think there is a specific altitude that would apply to all sites and situations. It’s similar to defining ‘cool climate viticulture.’ I don’t think there is a specific range or degree-day figure people apply to ‘cool climate,’ as it is associated with Carneros as well as Ontario, Canada.”


A Word about Vineyard Elevations Worldwide

Vineyards are planted in a wide range of elevations worldwide, ranging from sea level in many locations, such as the Lost Carneros AVA in California, to over 9,800’ in Argentina. The following is a non-comprehensive list of some locations and elevations of high altitude vineyards worldwide and in the U.S.

ArgentinaColome Estate, Salta Province — 7,218’ to 9,892’ (world’s highest)
AustraliaOrange Geographical Indication, New South Wales — 1,968’ to 3,608’
ItalyValle d’Aosta — NW border with Switzerland and France — up to 4,300’ (among the highest in Europe)
SpainMainland locations range up to 4,500’

Spanish Canary Islands, Tenerife — up to 5,740’

United StatesArizona — 4,000’ to 5,200’


Lake County — 900’ to 3,000’

Sierra Foothills — 1,200’ to 3,500’


West Elks AVA — up to 6,400’ (probably the highest in U.S.)

Grand Valley AVA — 4,400’ to 6,000+’

Idaho—up to 3,200’

New Mexico—up to 6,100’


High Plains AVA — 2,900’ to 4,100’


Rattlesnake Hills AVA — 850’ to 3,085’

In the Eastern U.S., Pennsylvania and Virginia have some of the highest elevation vineyards, ranging up to about 2,500’