les cretes vineyard at high altitude with snowcap mountain in background
A snowcapped mountain peak in the background of Les Crêtes, a vineyard at high altitude in Italy's Aosta Valley
Features 2 December 2021

On the edge of winemaking: high-altitude vineyards around the world

Meet the winemakers and viticulturists who scale the tallest heights and riskiest cliffs to reap the rewards of harvest each year

Words by Jacopo Mazzeo

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High altitude is a relative term when it comes to winemaking. Europe’s highest vineyards, with altitudes of up to about 1,200m, are found in Italy’s extreme north-west, in Aosta Valley and its neighbouring Alpine regions. Much higher than that, and year-round snow would make winemaking impossible. In very hot climates and in regions neighbouring the Tropics, however, grapevines can successfully grow at twice the height of the Alps’ highest elevations. Some of South America’s northernmost winegrowing areas – including Argentina’s Salta and Chile’s Elqui Valley – boast vineyards above 2,000m, with peaks at over 3,000m. In these tropical regions, altitude helps moderate the climate.

vines in bodega colome in salta, argentina
Bodega Colomé in Salta, Argentina; this part of the world is home to some of the world’s most high-altitude vineyards

As the globe’s climate gets warmer, colder sites are increasingly attractive for winemakers, and so are the marked temperature differences between day and night that higher elevations can offer. Cold nights help preserve acidity in grapes, often resulting in fresher wines. Additionally, altitude brings intense sunlight. Grapes tend to respond by growing thicker skins, which have the potential to lend more intense flavours, deeper colours, and stronger tannins to a wine.

apu winery worker
Mechanisation is impossible when inclines are as steep as those found at Apu Winery in Peru

Yet, the extreme nature of high-altitude vineyards presents significant challenges too. Summers can be particularly hot in some of the world’s mountainous winemaking regions. There, irrigation is vital but water is a luxury. Meanwhile, steep inclines might mean mechanisation is just impracticable. In Italy’s Aosta Valley, for instance, and on the Peruvian Andes, vine growers tackle steep slopes by building terraces. Terracing benefits these growers with an even surface, but their plots still demand an impressive amount of manual labour. And on that front, labour itself can be scarce whenever high-elevation vineyards are located in rural, isolated areas.

As the globe’s climate gets warmer, colder sites are increasingly attractive for winemakers

But despite these diversities, it’s clear to see from the conversations below that high-elevation winegrowers share a common thirst for adventure, a commitment to push the boundaries of winemaking, and a desire to tackle the world’s most challenging yet utterly fascinating natural environments.

Here, we meet five daring souls working on the edge of winemaking.

javier grane, the vineyard manager of bodega colome

Javier Grané

Vineyard Manager, Bodega Colomé in Salta, Argentina

Vineyard altitude: 1,750m-3,111m
Bodega Colomé is located in a corner of the Calchaquí Valley, in Argentina’s Salta region, home to some of the country’s – and the world’s – highest vineyards. At Colomé, high altitude means cooler temperatures, which make viticulture viable in Salta’s otherwise hot climate. Javier Grané has been with the company since 2003 as an agricultural engineer.

vines growing on an incline with mountains behind them

What are the main challenges faced in the vineyard?
‘In the high desert, where there is little rainfall, water is worth more than gold. All of the water used for the vineyards and the estancia (hotel) is sourced from streams and from the snowmelt cascading down the mountains, so it is imperative that we manage it well. We have built a hydroelectric system that allows us to both collect this ultra-pure water and generate electricity. In this way, we are self-sustaining.

‘The extreme altitude also shortens the seasonal cycles. There is a constant threat of early and unexpected ground frosts.’

Is climate change having a noticeable effect in the vineyard?
‘The last few years have seen later frosts following warm winters, hailstorms in areas where it did not occur before, very dry years… We have noticed changes in growth rates and ripening levels of the vineyard. These changes, which at first glance seem similar to those in lower-elevation areas, occur with significantly less intensity here. So far, at least…’

judy chan at grace vineyard, china

Judy Chan

President, Grace Vineyard in Shanxi, China

Vineyard altitude: 870m-950m in Shanxi (1202m-1222m in Ningxia)
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Judy Chan began working in Hong Kong for a global investment bank. In 2002, she resigned and took over Grace Vineyard from her father Chun-Keung Chan, who founded the business in 1997. She now oversees the entire production process, from grape growing to winemaking, and from marketing to strategic planning.

grace vineyard in shanxi, china

What are the main challenges faced in the vineyard?
‘Our winters are so cold that we have to bury the vines in early November and unearth them in early April. This increases our costs dramatically and restricts our growing season.

Shanxi has a very wet climate and the problem is that it rains in the summer during the growing season, which increases the risk of diseases. So we’re always looking for varieties that can withstand plentiful summer rain.’

Our youngest vineyard worker is 62 years old

In such a remote part of the world, how do you recruit your vineyard workers?
‘We have very limited vineyard workers available. People find it funny when I say it because China has 1.4 billion people, but here we suffer from an absolute lack of labour – and we don’t do mechanical harvesting.

‘We are 600km from Beijing, though the train only takes two-and-a-half hours. But when transportation is well developed people tend to move to the city rather than the other way around. Our youngest vineyard worker is now 62.’

driss ouissa, the vineyard manager of Domaine Zouina, Morocco

Driss Ouissa

Vineyard manager, Domaine Zouina in Meknès, Morocco

Vineyard altitude: 770m-805m
Driss Ouissa is Berber of the Guerrouanes tribe. He is in charge of the vineyards at Domaine Zouina, a winery located within Morocco’s largest wine region at the foot of the Middle Atlas Mountain range. The domaine produces white, rosé, and red wines from a range of French and Mediterranean varieties, including Syrah, Tempranillo and Chardonnay. Before returning to his native Morocco, Ouissa worked for over 20 years at Château Le Videau in Cadillac, Bordeaux.

workers on the land of Domaine Zouina vineyard, Morocco
zouina vinayard workers at altitude in the atlas mountains

What are the main challenges faced in the vineyard?

‘With our altitudes of more than 800m, our vines are closer to the rays of the sun. This means that they are subject to higher temperatures, so they need to be protected. We also suffer from scarcity of water. Soils are shallow, which affects productivity and grape growing in general. At lower altitudes, the soil and climate can be more generous with yields.

‘Altitude, however, also has beneficial effects. The strong variations in temperature between day and night allow the grapes to preserve their acidity and aromas. Even just 2°C or 3°C colder can help us a lot, especially during our hot summers.’

Is climate change having a noticeable effect in the vineyard?

‘Yes. The weather is becoming more unpredictable and we are noticing that extreme temperatures, both cold and hot, are becoming more frequent. For instance, our winters are not as cold as they used to be but at the same time, we experience sudden extreme cold which can damage the vines if it brings frost. However, the 2021 vintage is a good example of a perfect year, as we only had a few days of extreme heat in July (48°C). While it seems that in lower-altitude sites, the heat caused some damage.’

elena charrere in les cretes vineyard, italy with vines in the background

Elena Charrère

Co-owner, Les Crêtes in Aosta Valley, Italy

Vineyard altitude: 600m-900m
Alongside her sister Eleonora, Elena Charrère runs Les Crêtes, an artisan winery located in Aosta Valley, Italy’s smallest region nestled between France, Switzerland, and Piedmont. Elena’s family has been making wine there since the 1700s. Today, her winery produces savoury and fresh wines from both international and local varieties, including Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Petite Arvine, Nebbiolo, Fumint, Merlot, and Syrah.

autumn vines at Les Crêtes, Aosta Valley, Italy

What are the main challenges faced in the vineyard?

‘Our work here is defined as “heroic viticulture”, meaning that it’s characterised by extreme conditions. Our vineyard area is split into small plots located on steep slopes (over 30% incline) and at very high altitudes. This requires multiple journeys from site to site and everything must be done by hand because mechanisation is not possible. Our vineyards demand an enormous number of working hours per hectare, usually between 1,200-1,300 per hectare, which is three times the Italian average.

‘Luckily, the low rainfall and the cool, dry, and windy microclimate benefit us, as they help keep the vines healthy. On the other hand, our unpredictable climate means that yield volumes tend to fluctuate significantly from harvest to harvest.’

Our work here is defined as heroic viticulture

Is climate change having any noticeable effect in the vineyard?

‘High-elevation viticulture doesn’t suffer from the changing climate as much as lower-elevation sites do. That being said, our vineyards are increasingly suffering from the lack of water… so at times we have to resort to emergency irrigation. Fortunately, our soil composition allows our vines’ roots to go very deep, which allows them to survive even in high water-stress conditions.

‘Another climate-change element of concern is the rising incidence of fungal diseases, resulting from the increase in relative humidity.’

What do you find rewarding in such a challenging environment?

‘Fatigue often tends to cloud the magic of working in this place. Managing the former in order to preserve the latter requires awareness, commitment, and steady nerves. We do our best, and I must say that, fortunately, we live in a special place that offers many opportunities to succeed.’

Fernando Gonzales-Lattini in apu winery peru

Fernando Gonzales-Lattini

Founder and general manager, Apu Winery in Apurimac, Peru

Vineyard altitude: 2,850m-3,300m
Fernando Gonzales-Lattini is an economist. He worked in banking in both Spain and Peru for over 30 years. After retirement, he studied to become a sommelier to deepen his understanding of wine. He then sold his home in Lima and, along with his wife Meg McFarland and their small children, moved to Curahuasi where the family invested everything they had into the Apu Winery project.

apu winery vines on a slope with mountains in the background

What are the main challenges faced in the vineyard?

‘One main obstacle is our extremely steep slopes. Apu’s vineyards have slopes of up to 40% incline, making mechanisation impossible. We have to do everything by hand. Logistically, moving the grapes during harvest is very challenging.’

‘Traditionally, Peruvian wine has been made with grapes grown on the coast, where nights are very warm due to the tropical climate. Those grapes don’t develop the proper acidity you need to make a balanced wine, while our wines are more balanced because we can develop that acidity from cool nights. We are also located very close to the edge of the Amazon rainforest. This helps form the microclimate of the Curahuasi Valley and ensures that it never freezes here [despite the elevation].

How do you overcome the obstacles in a region new to modern winemaking?

‘I realised it was not only important to honour the traditions of the past, but I also recognised the engineering prowess of our ancestors, so we use ancient terracing and irrigation techniques of the Incas. The terracing system allows us to grow on land previously considered inhospitable to crops.

‘The Incas also built irrigation systems to enhance the yield of their water supply and to bring water to the most remote terrain. Our irrigation system, which channels rainwater and glacial runoff, was inspired by this model.’

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