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How high can you go?

Within the world of wine there are so many height levels you can reach, even more so when talking about prices…then the sky's the limit! The majority of people pay as much as their pocket will allow but be warned, it doesn't necessarily mean that the more you pay, the better the wine will be. It is all relative, and also dependent on so many other factors.

When talking about altitude, there are physical limitations on how high you can plant vines, to be able to create quality wines from them. Climate change is introducing new factors and changing the rules of the game, but there will still be altitudes that the vines simply cannot cope with. The current ‘normal’ limit is approximately 1000m above sea level; however, there are exceptions to this rule. For instance, some of the most elevated vineyards in mainland Spain can be found in the Gredos region (reaching 1230m), in Granada's Alpujarra mountain range (at 1300m), and in Aragón, where you will find vines above 1100m. In Tenerife, some vines are planted at 1700m, defying all logic. How is this possible? It is mainly due to the weather conditions and the sky-scraping volcanic peaks.

An even further extreme, is a vineyard located on the Tibetan Plateau at 3500m, and there is a bodega in Argentina with vines planted at 3100m, however, these last two examples are extraordinarily unique.

The influence of altitude, concerning wines, is very clear. We have all, at some point in our lives, understood that the higher you go, the cooler the temperature gets. In very general terms, when you go up 100m, you can expect the temperature to drop 1ºC.

Higher altitude vines benefit from this fact as it slows the ripening of the grape. In addition, the proximity and strength of the sun’s rays help create grapes with thicker skins, which ultimately adds more colour and aromas to the wine.

As you go further up the mountain, the soils tend to be poorer in nutrients and they retain less water and humidity. The consequences of these factors are likely to be smaller berries and a greater concentration of flavours.

All in all, this tends to be a winemaker's dream!

Harvested grapes at Trossos del Priorat

Priorat wines are a clear example of wines created at altitude, using small grapes with thick skins and concentrated flavours. It is often the case that a higher elevation also means a drier climate, so the leaves and grapes can grow healthily, without the risk of being infected by dangerous fungi.

The vineyards of Trossos del Priorat

But, not all is beneficial uphill!

The mechanisation of the countryside has increased, consequently introducing more industrial techniques into the farming process. This makes it a lot easier to grow anything, but machines do not cope well with steep hills or mountainsides, so eventually, many high altitude wine regions were abandoned for lower, easier to manage terrain.

Nowadays, reputed Spanish winemakers are searching for the abandoned vineyards on the hardest, steepest hills, to bring the old vines back to life and remind the world how nice high altitude wines can be. Needless to say, these wines are going to be more artisan and therefore more costly. At the end of the day, a handcrafted product has to be paid for.

Moving to the other end of the scale, how low can we go?

When talking about vines, the only limit is the sea, and many vineyards around the world are planted next to the allure of the waves. The clear, cooling influence of the sea breeze, the sandy soils, the minerality, and the salinity of the environment, all play a crucial role in the final product.

Having vines next to the sea does not mean the quality is going to be second-rate. Yes, the climate tends to be warmer near the coastline, but there are some great wine regions situated at a lower altitude, Bordeaux being a classic example.

The majority of high-quality wine regions are next to a body of water, be it the sea, a lake, or a river, thanks to the temperature regulating conditions they create. For the vines to grow healthily, steady, moderate temperatures are of paramount importance. Heatwaves and extreme weather conditions are the enemies.

Bodega Gaintza Txakolina in Getaria

The sun is not the only factor in low wine-growing regions. A fresh breeze and the morning fog can give the grapes a much-needed breather, helping them retain the desired acidity. One of the most popular coastal wines in Spain is the Albariño from Rías Baixas. The Basque Country's Txacolí is also making an interesting comeback. Both of these types of wines are very acidic (citrus), mineral, and a touch salty, so they are perfect with seafood dishes.

La Haya, underwater aged wine in Tenerife

Some wineries are experimenting even more, by heading offshore to age their wines underwater.

The idea came from the discovery of shipwrecked wines and champagne that were rescued and brought ashore.

This is currently an uncommon and expensive procedure, but an interesting one nonetheless.

The underwater aging conditions are similar to that on land; low light, a constant temperature, and high humidity.

However, the extra pressure seems to give the wines an added dimension.

They are certainly worth trying just for the rarity factor.

Whether high or low, altitude in wines is a key factor to consider when choosing wines to try.

It is worth doing some research beforehand, as the labelling can be very confusing and, at the moment, it is not regulated.

As always, ask your local expert or the wine shop, staff. They should help you navigate through the options so that you don't get too dizzy from all this talk of altitude.

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