Not many countries can boast vineyards higher than 1000 metres above sea level (masl) and they certainly tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Argentina, however, is that exception and mountain wines are its main attraction. About half the cultivated surface area of the fifth largest wine producer in the world lies above that magical figure with its vineyards planted in the foothills and right up into the slopes of the Andes, resulting in a variety of tastes and styles as well as furthering scientific research in the field.
Just to give one example, the 30,000 hectares of vineyards in the Uco Valley are all located above 1000 masl, with some reaching between 1600 and 1900 masl. Extreme conditions are thus the norm across the region, but they grow even more acute further north: from the Calchaquí Valleys to Humahuaca, Fiambalá to Chilecito right through the heart of Luján de Cuyo, Argentine vineyards regularly appear at the top of global height charts.
More and more wineries across the country are producing mountain or altitude wines, reflecting a sense of pride: a unique element seen as a mark of distinction.
Beyond the evocative idea of wines made in the clouds, what consumers are really interested in is how these high-altitude terroirs shape the wines produced in them.
In Argentina, at least a dozen scientific papers have been published recently in prestigious journals presenting the results of research into high altitude terroirs. Written by figures such as Ariel Fontana, Fernando Buscema, Martín Kaiser and Roy Urvieta, to mention a few local researchers working at universities and private institutions such as the Catena Institute of Wine, they all seek to explain and classify the effect of altitude on wine. Their findings can be summarized as follows:
This is the best-known effect, and why it is possible for vineyards to be planted from the Tropic of Capricorn right down to Patagonia in the south of Argentina. For every 150 metres you climb – a rough figure, the exact numbers change at different latitudes – the average temperature drops by 1°C.
So, a vineyard planted at 1000 masl will have a very different average temperature to one planted at 1600 masl: the higher vineyard will be about 4°C colder. That means that while the former will have a moderately warm climate, the latter will be a much colder wine producing zone. That translates into different styles: the warm zone will produce fruity reds with structure and moderate freshness while the colder zone will produce more herbal and floral aromas, firmer tannins and sustained acidity.
As one might expect, the further up you are, the more solar radiation you get. While, when one is at sea level, the sunlight is filtered by 100% of the atmosphere, at 2000 masl, that filtration is reduced by 30% with a commensurate increase in radiation. This has a significant effect on the vines. According to researchers, plants grow far more stressed: while the most obvious result is that the fruit is much more colourful as a defence mechanism, the synthesis of phenolic compounds is affected by changes in the way hormones behave. In the case of red wines, this results in greater structure.
Other distinctive factors are not directly related to altitude as such but the Andes themselves. The most obvious and consistent variable is physical. The higher you go, the steeper the slopes get and the soil is newer while its composition – determined initially by gravity – changes depending on when it comes into contact with rivers.
The combination of soils and altitude in the Andes has set winemakers a puzzle when determining the character of the resulting terroirs that is only just being unravelled. However, one thing is for sure: altitude must be taken into account when considering Argentine wine.
Mountain wines have their own character and you must discover it.