Do vineyards at high altitudes make better wines?

By 10/01/2015 December 12th, 2017 Tales
Grecanico Dorato grape bunch

Pros and cons of a vineyard located at extreme altitudes. Some of our more expert friends that visited our vineyard have pointed out that our vines grow at the most extreme altitude in the entire Europe. We knew already that having a vineyard at more than 1100 meters of altitude isn’t normal but, in a spirit of healthy curiosity, we have done some simple researches on the Internet.

Our vineyard is actually among the highest in Europe. Before looking for the other vine playing in the Champions’ League of altitude, a subject that will be treated in another post, it could be interesting to understand why a winegrower isn’t completely insane if he decides to grow its plants at high altitudes.

One of the first advantages is the healthiness of the environment and the cleanliness of the air. The higher you go, the farther you are from population centers, smog and fine dusts that, having a certain weight, can be carried by the wind over large distances, but only horizontally. Therefore, the higher you go, the healthier the air and the micro ecosystem of a vineyard are.

Plants use light to activate the chlorophyll photosynthesis process and the higher you go the purest the light is. At high altitudes, besides the absence of the filter effect created by water vapor and by the dusts deriving from pollution, the light has to go through a thinner layer of atmosphere and is more direct.

Setting aside the limits of every generalization, usually at high altitudes the flow of air is stronger. A more ventilated vineyard is usually a healthier vineyard, mainly because it is indirectly protected from the humidity stagnations that cause many vine diseases. This is even truer in the environment of Mount Etna, a solitary volcano. Not even the close, but way shorter Mount Nebrodi can shield Etna from marine currents and hinterlands winds.

Usually also the atmospheric temperature range is higher at high altitudes. In our vineyard where we harvest the grapes of Millesulmare, during the hot days of July or August, the temperature can easily go beyond 30 degrees during the day, “falling down” to 10 degrees or less during the night. Many scientific studies have proven that, under the same agricultural conditions, the grapes that go through heavy temperature fluctuations during the ripening acquire more flavors.

Furthermore, in our specific case, since we are on the highest volcano in Europe, the volcanic activity enriches the soil at high altitudes with ashes rich in minerals, which nourish the vegetation. Obviously, though, there are many downsides in planting and cultivating a vineyard at high altitudes, on which we have long meditated before planting our vineyard in Contrada Nave on Mount Etna but, in the end, our “insanity” has prevailed…

A vineyard, of course, needs expert people knowing the specific microclimatic conditions of the area and the reactions of the vines to such conditions; this is true for every plantation at high altitudes, but pushing the plants to the most extreme conditions amplifies the problem and complicates the implementation of mitigating factors. Therefore, a specific expertise is even more critical. The grapes are at great risk of climatic occurrences, like hailstorms, heavy rainfall or drought (in our vineyard of SantaMariaLaNave the steady ventilation during drought periods can minimize the air humidity and work against the grapes. This is why in our vineyard, when the first leaves come out, we work the soil in order to let the roots reach a greater depth, so they can be protected from drought during the ripening). We have succeeded in mitigating these problems thanks to an accurate clonal selection that lasted approximately 15 years, during which we observed the reaction to many microclimatic phenomena of the ungrafted plants and some prephylloxera. The working expenses are much higher, since people and equipment have to reach the vineyard ad hoc, they are not just passing by.

Lastly, growing plants at extreme altitudes on Mount Etna may involve other risks uncommon in other areas of the world. Since Etna is an active volcano, the volcanic activity can provoke stone falls that could damage the grapes. Also the risk of an eruption that could threaten the vineyard directly can never be completely ruled out (history teaches us that Mount Etna, during its 600.000 years of existence, even if it is a “good” volcano, has damaged countless cultivations and inhabited centers located on its slopes.

Planting and cultivating a vineyard at extreme altitudes requires a great deal of attention and involves high risks and expenses, but with the highest possible degree of attention and expertise and thanks to the climate, the results could be extraordinary.

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