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High Level Wine
By Marguerite Thomas
Apr 15, 2014
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Here’s a mini quiz for you:  Which country can boast the highest vineyards in the world?  Yes, Switzerland, where terraced vineyards range from 2132 to 3772 feet above sea level, is a pretty good guess, but it’s the wrong guess.  In fact Switzerland can’t even lay claim to the highest vineyard in Europe.  That distinction goes to Spain, more specifically to Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands.  On Tenerife, vines are cultivated on the volcanic slopes of El Teide at more than 5000 feet above sea level.  (To put this in perspective, consider that Napa’s mountain vineyards tend to max out at around 3000 feet.)

To reach the highest vineyard on earth, head to the province of Salta, in Argentina, where the region’s lowest vineyards begin a mile above sea level.  Keep climbing another mile, up to 10,206 feet, and you’ll come, at last, to Altura Maxima.  This is it: the world’s highest vineyard.  Owned by Hess Family Wines, Altura Maxima’s flagship grapes is Malbec.  The wine is made at Hess’s Bodega Colomé, one of the oldest wineries in Argentina, founded in 1831.

One might be forgiven for wondering why anyone would even consider taking on the challenges of producing wine up in the clouds, where the winds can whip vines around like crazy, where frost is a perennial threat, and where anyone foolish enough to bring farm machinery up to the mountains is apt to see it skitter off the edge of the earth.  Developing mountain vineyards generally involves rugged and steep terrain, with infrastructure (roads, water, electricity etc.) often nonexistent. Rocks--from pebble to boulder size--frequently must be removed. The soils tend to be thin and poor.

Casper Eugster, Altura Maxima’s vineyardist, says he is still learning to cope with the rigors of the high altitude wine growing.  In addition to coping with frost and hail, Eugster has to protect the vines from being ravaged by wild hares, wild donkeys and leaf-eating ants.  “High altitude viticulture is still being invented,” he says ruefully.

Despite the challenges, a slew of different incentives drive pioneering vintners ever higher up into the mountains.  Climate change is one, as many regions at lower elevations are becoming too warm for good viticulture.  Economics is another, with the high price of established winegrowing acreage luring folks up into the hills searching for less expensive real estate. 

Advocates of mountain wines think the main reason to scale the heights is because vines grown at higher elevations have greater potential for excellence.  Among the sound physiological evidence they offer is the fact that grapes develop tougher skins at high elevations.  With grapes as with people, thick skins can provide protection against various types of insult and injury.  Wine made from thick-skinned, smaller mountain fruit tends to have deeper color and more intense flavor components.

Grapes exposed to intense UV light become particularly aromatic and savory, and have higher tannins. Greater exposure to UV rays also generates more anthocyanins, the antioxidant components that produce health benefits.  (Recent studies at William Harvey Research Institute in London indicate that Argentina’s high altitude wines are uniquely rich in polyphenols, which are thought to help prevent heart disease.)  The greater day/night temperature difference in mountain regions also affects wine quality, with warm days increasing sugar levels in the grapes, while cooler nights help them retain good acidity.

Colomé Malbec is distinguished by these inviting characteristics.  It is deeply colored, and has complex, densely layered spice and dark fruit flavors.  It tastes fresh and fruity, and feels dense and velvety in the mouth, with elegant, silky tannins.  The price of the wine--$30--seems relatively low when the quality is this high, especially when it has the distinction of coming from the world’s highest vineyard.