During any discussion of altitude in wine, a series of frankly clichéd images and ideas tend to come to mind. We think of vineyards framed by evergreen trees and snow-topped peaks where the wine must surely be sensational because, well, why else would the owners put themselves through the exhausting, backbreaking work of planting, tending and harvesting them on these insanely steep slopes?
Such Alpine – or Andean – imagery is not exactly consistent with the image most of us have of Spanish wine. Spain, according to my own collection of Spanish wine books and articles, is essentially a land of bush vines on endless dusty (and rather flat) sun-baked plains onto which imposing metal bovine silhouettes cast their shadows, while the wines slowly age in massive vaulted (and no less dusty) barrel cellars.
But if it is true that much of Spain’s vineyard – the largest in the world – does indeed fit into a kind of ‘the wine in Spain grows mostly on the plain’ stereotype, it’s also true that Spain is one of the most significant producers of high-altitude wines in the world. Indeed, it boasts some of Europe’s highest vineyards – albeit not always in the kind of mountain-pastoral settings that you might find in Mendoza or Morgex et de la Salle in the Italian Alps.
Take, for example, Ribera del Duero. It almost always comes as a surprise to first-time visitors to the northwestern region that the character of the Tinto Fino (aka Tempranillo) reds is profoundly shaped by altitude. Certainly, if you take the two-hour drive north from Madrid, you barely notice that you have ascended some 900m above sea level such is the flat expanse that runs to the horizon as you gaze from the castle that sits atop the region’s historical wine capital, Peñafiel. This is not a mountainous terrain. Instead, the region’s varied soils (more than 30 discrete terroirs have been identified by the local DO) sit on a high rolling plateau.
That elevation brings cold winters and summer daytime temperatures that can easily broach the 40°C mark. But it also brings day-night temperature variations during the growing season of 25°C. In the best Ribera del Duero reds, that leads to a kind of high-contrast, high-definition style: crudely speaking, the daytime sun and warmth provides the ripe, dark fruit flavours and power, while the nighttime cool preserves the acidity that brings the supporting freshness and liveliness.
It’s a winning combination that is increasingly shaping the outlook of winemakers in Rioja, Ribera del Duero’s historic winemaking neighbour to the northeast, too. While much of Rioja’s vineyard is planted at between 300m and 500m above sea level, there are plantings of up to 800m running into the Sierra de Cantabria. As has traditionally been the way in Rioja, the higher-altitude vines are often used to add seasoning in blends of fruit sourced from different sites across the region. But producers such as Ramón de Bilbao, Remelluri and Aldonia among others, are now making wines of great freshness and verve exclusively from vineyards of 700m and more.
Telmo Rodriguez, the well-travelled winemaker at the helm of Remelluri, has in fact been an important player in the revival of two other vertiginous Spanish wine regions. In the Sierras de Málaga, high above the Mediterranean, Malvasia, Syrah and – historically most important – Muscat all thrive in wines with a cool precision that may surprise anyone that associates the area with the heat and beaches of the Costa del Sol.
In the wild, granitic Sierra de Gredos mountains near Madrid, meanwhile, scattered vineyards of up to a century or more in age can be found from 600m to (in the Valle Alto Alberche) some 1,250m. For the past couple of decades these sites been given a new lease of life by a disparate group of intrepid, natural (and natural-minded) winemakers, who produce haunting, pale, Pinot-esque Garnacha and salty-mineral Albillo Real whites.
In the Sierras of both Gredos and Malaga, altitude is but one variable in the recipe for fine wine. The play of gradient and exposition – from the almost vertical and north facing, to the gently steep and southeastern orientation – has a marked impact on the conditions, accelerating or retarding the accumulation of sugar and acidity in the grapes, and providing contrast and variation in the finished wines.
This cocktail of conditions has also attracted some of Spain’s best winemakers to the starkly beautiful region of Priorat, inland from the city of Tarragona in the rugged Mediterranean south of Catalonia. Although some sites here touch 900m, not everything in Priorat is planted at high altitudes. But the vertiginous nature of the best vineyards, often planted on the region’s famed llicorella schist soils, enables a dramatic diurnal variation of around 20°C in the summer months. This is ideal for keeping the natural acidity in the Carinyena grapes that provide the spine, backbone and distinctive mineral balance to Garnatxa’s fleshy generosity in the modern classic Priorat red blend.
It’s a story that is repeated all over Spain. It may be fennel-scented, saline Xarel.lo from the Alt-Penedès (up to 850m) in Catalonia; the tang of cherry and plum in Mencía from far northwestern Bierzo (up to 1,000m); or the nervy, earthy, fragrant red grown by Suertes del Marques on the slopes of the Pico de Teide on the island of Tenerife. But in the search for texture, balance and freshness (and in many cases, in a bid to adapt to and reduce the impact of climate change), growers throughout Spain are increasingly looking up.
Spanish Wine Academy from Ramón Bilbao
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To discover exactly how higher altitudes affect grapes and the wines produced, Ramón Bilbao’s Innovation Team is working with the Research Department of famous French cooperage Demptos and the University of Bordeaux, to study how grapes grown at high altitude mature and develop over time.
Ramón Bilbao’s chief winemaker, Rodolfo Bastida, has fallen more and more in love with altitude for growing grapes with the fresh red fruit aromas and flavours that he wants in his wines.
While vineyards at altitude may be on-trend in countries such as Argentina, Rioja’s wine-growing has traditionally been focused on the valley floors. However, with increasing awareness of the effects of climate change and a hunger for fresh, elegant red wines, Ramón Bilbao’s vinous adventures are taking them to the higher heights of the region.
The purchase of a ‘dream parcel’ of vines high in the Monte Yerga mountains (which extend to over 1,000 metres) gave Ramón Bilbao its first vineyard in Rioja Oriental. It became a natural HQ for a research programme dedicated to uncovering exactly what altitude means for the Ramón Bilbao wines.
Bastida and his head of innovation, Rosana Lisa, have dedicated two plots in the 90ha vineyard to this programme: one at 520m above sea level, and one 200m higher, both planted with Tempranillo and both going to 225-litre oak barrels for maturation after malolactic fermentation.
‘Growing at altitude involves a degree of risk, but for me the benefits outweigh this – particularly when you’re looking to tackle the effects of climate change on our viticulture,’ explains Bastida. ‘The higher up you go, the poorer the soil becomes, due to rain erosion, and this is good for viticulture. The wind also gets stronger, but this helps to keep grapes disease-free and gives an extra freshness and fruit dimension to the grapes. Light intensity is another key factor here – photosynthesis is more efficient in the plants, so they are able to develop more aromas and taste than those at lower altitudes,’ he adds.
‘One of the key factors of altitude is the creation of a large diurnal range – the difference between day and night temperatures – which slows the ripening of the grapes. This means they tend to retain higher levels of acidity, particularly as the malic acid does not decline thanks to the cold night temperatures.
‘When vines are grown at higher altitude the surrounding air is thinner and cools faster. The UV rays are also stronger at altitude allowing more polyphenol synthesis which is particularly important for red grape varieties. Growing at higher altitudes also means we have less need for using treatments and pesticides on the vines. ‘