Mountain Wines: how altitude affects the style of Argentinian wines

Featured / Outstanding / Trends / 6 March, 2020

By: Joaquín Hidalgo

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.

UP IN THE ANDES

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:

Variation in temperature

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.

mountain wines

Increased solar radiation

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.


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Joaquín Hidalgo
Joaquín Hidalgo (nacido en 1978) es oriundo de Mendoza, donde se recibió de enólogo en el Liceo Agrícola. Periodista diplomado en Universidad Nacional de La Plata, desde 2003 vive en Buenos Aires donde escribe sobre vinos y gastronomía en importantes medios nacionales: wine writer de revista JOY y Playboy; es columnista dominical en La Mañana de Neuquén y La Nación. Coeditó la guía de vinos Austral Spectator entre 2011 y 2013, año en que lanzó Vinomanos.com, la primera guía mobile de vinos argentinos. Joaquín Hidalgo (born in 1978) hails from Mendoza, where he received his title of winemaker from the Liceo Agrícola. He graduated as a journalist from the National University of La Plata, and since 2003 has been living in Buenos Aires where he writes about wine and food in major national media: wine writer for JOY magazine and Planetajoy, he is a columnist for the Sunday edition of La Mañana de Neuquén and La Nación magazine. He co-edited the Austral Spectator wine guide between 2011 & 2013, the year in which he launched Vinómanos, the first mobile app guide to Argentine wines.




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