High Altitude Wines: What Are They and Why Are They So Good

by Rhonda Turner

In recent years, winemakers have celebrated the fresh and complex wines created at high altitudes. But established vintners point to Listrac, or the Left Bank of Bordeaux’s Médoc, which produces Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These are two of the lowest-lying wine regions in the world.

So, does elevation really make a difference? Are high-altitude wines that much better?

Depending on location and climate, altitude can be crucial for vineyards. Higher altitudes result in temperature variations, soil diversity, solar radiation intensity, oxygen paucity, ventilation, and drainage challenges. 

Defining High Altitude

In most classic wine regions, like Napa Valley in California or Chianti in Italy, the differences in altitude between the valley floor and mountainous ridges are marked.

In Napa, vineyards range from 200 feet to 2,200 feet above sea level, and in Chianti, one of the highest-elevation wineries, Volpaia, sits between 1,300 and 2,130 feet.

The highest vineyard in the United States, Continental Divide, sits at 10,361 feet. And the highest vineyard in the world, Pure Land, sits at an altitude of 11,691 feet above sea level in Cai Na Xiang, Qushui County of Lhasa, Tibet.

AVAs by Altitude

Some American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) also define themselves by their altitude. On the Sonoma coast, Fort Ross-Seaview AVA stipulates vineyards must sit at 920 feet to 1,800 feet or higher. These altitudes allow the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays grapes to get enough sunlight to ripen in the cool climate – creating pristine, complex wines. 

The Mendocino Ridge AVA and its 11 micro climes in Northern California require an elevation of at least 1,200 feet. Some of the area’s highest vineyards are known for their distinctive Zinfandels.

High altitude wines have challenges, but winemakers have learned to exploit these differences to create unique wines rather than lament their fate. 

High Altitude Vineyards

Elevated vineyards offer four critical contrasts to their valley floor counterparts: 

Together, these essential growth elements create strife, forcing the vines to produce fewer grapes. A matter of quality over quantity, these tiny berries are robust and full of character.

Sunlight at elevation is a major factor for development and growth. The sunlight strengthens as the elevation increases, and for every 1,000 feet increase, UV rays intensify by 10-12%.

The strong sun exposure causes grapes to develop deeper pigmentation. This “tanning process” is so profound that Argentinean winemaker Catena has studied the process of intense, concentrated light on plants at their Andes Mountain vineyards. 

The “tanning” produces a thick, tough grape skin with vivid color and high tannins — creating an age-worthy wine. 

The thick skin also protects grapes from extensive temperature changes seen at higher elevations. These broad, daily temperature shifts force grapes to ripen slowly, resulting in lower sugar production. These warm days and cold nights also develop acids adding complexity – essential to fine wines. 

Related: What are Biodynamic Wines?

Oxygen and Wine

Oxygen is necessary for proper fermentation – turning the sugars into alcohol – and it thins at higher elevations, but once the wine is ready to bottle, oxygen degrades the aromas and alters the color. The scarcity of oxygen at the higher altitudes creates a wine with distinct characteristics. 

Higher elevations and steeper inclines are dominated by rocky soil. Rocks drain water quickly from vines, forcing them to grow deep roots for water and nutrients. The average root depth of lower altitude nutrient-rich soils is three feet, but in Napa, vines can root up to 40 feet in the battle for nutrients. Less food and water reduces the vine’s yield. Scrapy but smart, these low-yielding vines create higher-quality berries.

And if these individual difficulties were not enough. Nature has one more. The combination of challenges – low soil nutrients and oxygen, temperature swings, and intense sunlight changes the growing season. High-altitude vineyards have a later spring bloom and an earlier harvest period. 

Most high-altitude winemakers believe growing at elevation is worth the extra effort. The obstacles that higher altitudes pose force grapevines to work smarter. By adapting and differentiating with darker skins and increased acidity and aroma, high-altitude grapes contribute to extraordinarily expressive wines.



FEATURED EVENTS

Crush Wine Experiences

October 23, 2021

A once-in-a-lifetime experience

Piedmont Italy: Barolo and Barbaresco tour

Oct 23 – 30, 2021
6 nights, 7 days
Milan, Barolo, Alba, and Turin

RESERVE NOW
Crush Wine Experiences

September 23, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Kotti Berliner – Food & Wine Pairing

Join us for a Virtual Food & Wine Pairing with Brooklyn’s Kotti Berliner. Explore delicious döner kebabs paired with wine. Meet Kotti founder, Erkan Emre.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

September 16, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Broadbent Selections – Portugal

Join us for a Virtual Tasting with one of America’s leading importers of high-quality Portuguese wines.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

September 2, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Cusumano Winery – Sicily, Italy

Join us for a Virtual Tasting with the maker of the #1 selling Sicilian wine in the U.S.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

August 26, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Kunde Family Winery

Join us for a Virtual Tasting. The Kunde family has farmed an 1,850-acre estate in Sonoma Valley for 100 years.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

August 19, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards

Join us for a Virtual Tasting. Great wine starts in the vineyard.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

August 12, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Dutcher Crossing Winery

Join us for a Virtual Tasting. Distinctive and hand-crafted wines produced from award-winning vineyards.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

June 12, 2020

At Your Home

RGNY At-Home Blending Session

Be your own winemaker for a day — guided by a professional on Zoom video!

PURCHASE KIT & ZOOM TICKET
Crush Wine Experiences

May 29, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Virtual Wine & Pizza Tasting with Jamesport Vineyards

What’s better than great wine and artisanal pizza?

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 28, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Foxen Winery & Vineyard Virtual Tasting

Experience the magic of Santa Barbara wine.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 28, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Foxen Winery & Vineyard Virtual Tasting

Experience the magic of Santa Barbara wine.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 21, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Chateau Montelena Winery Virtual Tasting

This tasting will be epic.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 19, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Ridge Vineyards Virtual Tasting – Monte Bello winery

The New York Times described Ridge Monte Bello as “America’s greatest Cabernet Sauvignon.”

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 18, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Tenuta di Lilliano Virtual Tasting

Very special tasting. Don’t miss it!

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 15, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Pedroncelli Winery Virtual Tasting

Four Generations of Family Pride at Pedroncelli Winery, since 1927

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 14, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Provence Rosé Group Virtual Tasting

The best rosé in the world comes from Provence.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 13, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

St. Francis Winery Virtual Tasting

Voted “#1 in America” in 2013 and 2015 by Open Table customers.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 12, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Ridge Vineyards Virtual Tasting – Lytton Springs

The New York Times described Ridge’s Cabernet Sauvignon as America’s greatest.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 11, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Oak Farm Vineyards Virtual Tasting

Visit the famous wine-growing region of Lodi County, California – virtually!

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 8, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Goldschmidt Vineyards Virtual Tasting

Visit Sonoma County – virtually!

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

April 18, 2020

Marlboro, NY

Wines & Bites!

Hudson Valley’s yummiest wine and food tasting event

GET TICKETS
Crush Wine Experiences

March 7, 2020

New York’s Premier Winter Wine Event

NYC Winter Wine and Food Festival

Enjoy a winter getaway without even leaving the city.

GET TICKETS
Crush Wine Experiences

January 19, 2020

Riverhead, NY

RG|NY Blending Session

Join RG|NY winemaker Lilia Perez, for a unique tasting and blending session.

PURCHASE TICKETS
Crush Wine Experiences

December 14, 2019

Ulster & Orange Counties, NY

Wreath Fineries at the Wineries

Don’t miss the ultimate holiday wine tasting event in the Hudson Valley. Sales end Thursday, Dec 12 at 11:59pm!

PURCHASE TICKETS
Crush Wine Experiences

November 14, 2019

New York, NY

Around The World In 10 Wines

Experience a global tasting in 2 hours with award-winning artisan cheese and charcuterie

PURCHASE TICKETS

RELATED WINE BLOGS

autumn wines

Tuesday, October 4th, 2022

5 Autumn Wines Perfect for Cooler Weather
Fall is a festive season. And as the temperature drops, our thoughts inevitably turn to thick sweaters, blazing fires, and myriad of foods and spices, plus of course, those autumn wines. In addition to universal favorites that are uniquely food-friendly, like Pinot Noir, we think of the bigger, bolder, more complex wines like the proverbial - Read More
Read more...
new world wine

Friday, September 30th, 2022

New World Wine vs. Old World Wine: Global Winemakers are Changing Wine Markets
As the budding wine connoisseur that you are, you may have heard the terms, “Old World,” and “New World” wines. Old World wines refer to wines that come from traditional winemaking countries. These are countries in Europe and parts of the Middle East like France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Germany. New World wines come - Read More
Read more...
low abv

Wednesday, September 28th, 2022

Low Alcohol, High Flavor: Low ABV Beverages You’ll Love to Drink
Whether you’re trying to cut back on your alcohol consumption or you know you have a long night of bar hopping ahead of you, it helps to know what’s available to help keep your alcohol intake low. What’s more, you don’t have to sacrifice flavor to do it! By choosing drinks with low alcohol by - Read More
Read more...
LOAD MORE