High-altitude winemaking challenges not for the faint of heart


Here in Taos, we know something about altitude. We know the thinner atmosphere gives us our stunningly blue skies and gives our visitors headaches. We know the altitude can make our baked goods go wonky and one drink feel like two to flatlanders. And we know it can bring some interesting weather - as I write this in late May, it is snowing.

Such meteorological events can make trying to maintain a garden challenging, let alone a commercial crop such as wine grapes. But some bold souls make the attempt, including our neighbors to the south in Dixon and Velarde. They certainly qualify as some of the highest vineyards in the world, and they are in good company.

Many winemaking regions are located near or on mountainsides. Such slopes can provide ideal exposure to the sun for ripening grapes, as well as rocky or volcanic soils in which many vines thrive. The elevation provided by the mountainsides also dramatically affects temperature, which determines what types of grapes can grow there. Some grapes flourish in cooler temperatures, whereas others will fail to ripen at all. And while the growing season at high altitude can be quite short, increased ultraviolet radiation (we know all about that in Taos, too) can help grapes ripen fully.

In most cases, the elevation of vineyards is moderate. For example, Napa Valley's vineyards range from sea level to around 2,600 feet above. Those regions at the higher elevations, such as Howell Mountain and Spring Mountain District, are regarded as some of the highest in quality, "mountain fruit" tending to have greater finesse than grapes grown on a valley floor. This is due, in large part, to the slower ripening that occurs at lower temperatures and the maintenance of structural elements of the wine, such as acidity and tannins.

The temperature differentials in Napa are enough to create this distinction, but consider this: The highest commercially producing vineyards in the world, located in the Andes mountains of Argentina, top out at higher than 10,000 feet above sea level. It is rumored there is a vineyard somewhere in the Himalayas at 9,000 feet. The vintners of the Swiss and the Italian Alps are battling it out over who has the highest vineyard in Europe, both nearing 4,000 feet (I think Italy technically wins the prize). What would such extreme high-altitude wines taste like? Let's find out.

2016 Colomé Torrontés Salta ($13 per 750-milliliter bottle) comes from some of those vineyards soaring high up in the Andes. If allowed to overripen, Torrontés can be overly alcoholic and bitter; the cool temperatures at these altitudes serve the grape very well. A naturally floral variety, some Torrontés can smell rather like your grandmother's bathroom soap, but Colomé's delicate version is more subtly spicy than floral, with a pleasing hint of nutmeg adorning its ripe peach and apricot aromas.

I knew that trying to find Himalayan or Swiss wines in Taos would be a fruitless endeavor, but I was disappointed that I couldn't find any wines from Italy's Val d'Aosta. Being an unrepentant wine geek, I thought it would be quite fun to taste a wine made in the shadows of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. But I don't feel too deprived to have to scoot down the road a bit to Valtellina.

Just north of Lake Como, Valtellina's peaks don't rise quite as high as those of Val d'Aosta, ascending to a "lowly" 3,000 feet above sea level. But there's no question that the vineyards are built on mountainous terrain. Indeed, the terraces on which the vines grow are nearly vertical, supported by an astounding network of stone walls. If laid end to end, they would stretch nearly 1,500 miles.

Nebbiolo is front and center here, although it's called Chiavennasca by the region's long tradition. 2011 Nino Negri Valtellina Superiore Quadrio ($24) is unmistakably Nebbiolo by eye. The color density of Nebbiolo in the glass is very light; the grape is also an "early-ager," turning lighter and browner far earlier than most red grapes. The Quadrio is distinctly rosy-brick at 6 years of age, with classic aromas of an aging Nebbiolo -- raspberry, cherry and violet -- rather than the "tar and roses" of youth. There are spicy notes of licorice and clove here as well, in addition to a touch of menthol and a meatiness that evolves as the wine opens. Elegant and complex, this wine is the result of slow, complete ripening on the vine.

While it's not necessary to seek out wines from such extreme elevations to find elegance and finesse, it's worth bearing in mind the quality and balance that certain vineyard sites can bestow. Also, if in your travels you come across a wine from Nepal, be sure to let me know.