Trying to define Mountain Wines

Mountain wines! The term sounds romantic to any wine lover who also loves the mountains.  Beautiful scenery springs to mind, but for anyone with a little knowledge on growing vines and making wine, mountain wines also conjures up an image of difficult, challenging or even extreme conditions leading perhaps to fine wines born out of adversity. But, does the term mountain wine really mean anything?

Aosta Valley

High altitude terraced vineyards in the Aosta Valley ©Wink Lorch

For years, I’ve been toying with ‘mountain wines’ along with ‘Alpine wines’ and ‘high altitude wines’ to describe the category of wines in which I’ve increasingly specialized – wines from Savoie and Jura in particular, but also a sporadic interest and fascination in wines from anywhere close to the Alps: Die, east of Valence in the Rhône, Swiss wine regions, the Italian regions of Aosta, Valtellina, South Tyrol and Trentino, and perhaps even those of Collio in Friuli, and their neighbouring Slovenian vineyards close to the Julian Alps.

Yet all these terms can be shot down in flames, with Jura frankly fitting none of them at all, being not Alpine (the Jura is a separate mountain range), relatively low altitude and at most in the lower foothills of the mountains. And, then there’s the fact that ‘mountain wines’ is a commonly used term in the Napa Valley for wines from vineyards (and often wineries) high up above the valley floor on Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain and the highest Atlas Peak, and is, quite frankly a loose term used all over California and the rest of the New World for any vineyards not on the valley floor. Just Google it and you will see what I mean.

Altitude – Take me higher
Here’s a question: are mountain wines necessarily at high altitude, and if so, what defines high altitude? Vineyard altitude has long been an obsession of mine, since I first visited what I thought were the highest vineyards of Europe (they weren’t) near one of my favourite ski resorts in Switzerland.

Contrary to the local publicity, the highest vineyards in Europe are not those of Visperterminen in the Valais, Switzerland, near Zermatt and Saas Fee, despite being up to almost 1150m. They are not even those of Morgex et la Salle in Aosta, reaching up to 1300m, although they held this claim until relatively recently. Outside of certain islands (Cyprus possibly, where only half is in Europe) the honour of the highest vineyards in mainland Europe is held by the vineyards of the Sierra de la Contraviesa-Alpujarra of Granada (southern Spain)where winery Barranco Oscuro is at 1280m and has vineyards planted up to 1368m. If you know anywhere that exceeds this, please let me know!

Savoie vineyards

Are wines from the Marestel cru in Jongieux, Savoie mountain wines? ©Brett Jones

By comparison the ‘mountain vineyards’ of Savoie are mainly from a mere 250m up to 600m with very few at the higher level. Those of the Jura (not Alpine of course) mostly fall into the range 250-450m, not that different to the vineyards of Alsace or even the Côte d’Or in Burgundy. In reality the other Alpine wine areas have very few vineyards above 700m.

At the other side of the world, in the southern Hemisphere in Argentina are vineyards that are considerably higher than in Europe: Mendoza vineyards start at 600m and for many years stretched up to 1100m, plantings in the past 15 years stretching  up to around 1600m; up in Salta, they start at 1500m and rise to over 3,000m with the vineyards of Colomé owned by Hess probably being the highest commercial vineyards in the world, although that claim may belong to some vineyards in Bolivia.

Mountain Wine FairVins de Montagne/Vini di Montagne – attempting a definition
Google ‘vins de montagne’ or the same in Italian and it is mainly Alpine wines that appear. In January 2012, the town of Chambéry in Savoie hosted the first edition of a supposed biennial wine fair for trade professionals on the Friday, and for consumers over the weekend, entitled Biennale des Vins de Montagne (with an added ‘et des fortes pentes’ meaning ‘and from steep slopes’ that allowed them a little more flexibility with exhibitors).

The exhibitors were roughly one-third Savoie wine producers, one-third from other mountain/steep slope vineyards in France, and the remaining from foreign mountain vineyards. Apart from Savoie, from France there was just one producer from Jura, a couple from Bugey, two from Beaujolais (from the far west of the region with steeply sloping vineyards on the foothills of the Massif Central) and other representatives included producers from Die, Haute Alpes, the Pyrenees and Limoux. Foreigners included a Mosel producer from Germany, two rather large Swiss Valais producers (sad they couldn’t encourage small producers), and the rest from Italy (mainly Valtellina, Aosta and some more obscure Italian Alps areas including Carema in Piemonte).

Heroic viticultureOne of the co-organisers was CERVIM, an organisation based in the Aosta Valley that promotes research into the mountain vineyards of Europe, holds a conference every two years and runs an annual competition. They define mountain wines as those from challenging vineyards that have particular attributes such as:

  • Altitude above 500m
  • Steeply terraced vineyards (eg Cinqueterre, Banyuls)
  • Slope of a great gradient than 30%
  • Grown on a small island with steep slopes (eg Greek islands)

Rather delightfully, the term they use as a catch phrase is ‘Heroic viticulture’.

I used the show as a chance to catch up with a good range of Savoie producers (of which more in a future post), plus some Aosta and Valtellina producers (another future blog post is due on these Italian mountain wines) and to enjoy a few real obscurities.

Coutandin from Pinerolese

Daniele Coutandin, obviously a heroic mountain winemaker ©Brett Jones

The outstanding new and exciting find for me at the fair was Daniele Coutandin from the tiny Piemontese wine region of Pinerolese DOC, southwest of Turin in mountains on the border with France not far from the resort of Sestrière. This tiny family winery has revived various steep, terraced pockets of vineyards at altitudes from 650-800m, making little more than 2000 bottles of reds from blends of obscure grape varieties. The Ramié 2009 had a wild herbal and fruit nose, with a delicious fresh acidity and a stony, mineral character with great length. This is a producer and an area high on my list of places to explore soon.

The benefits and allure of mountain or high altitude wines
There is no question that altitude, steepness, angle of slope and paucity of soil (often just thin layers of topsoil on solid rock forcing vines to go deep for water) all have an influence on the quality of the grapes. It is proven that colours of red wines are deeper and more sustained when they are from grapes grown at high altitudes. That elusive word ‘minerality’ that we wine tasters love to talk about crops up again and again from wines grown in mountain areas. The altitude means that often there is good diurnal temperature difference during the growing season leading to high acidity, providing balance and ageing ability. And finally, there is also the much misunderstood effects of dissolved oxygen in the wine, which varies with altitude, and is definitely beyond the scope of this post.

Valtellina vineyards

Nino Negri’s terraces in Grumello, Valtellina ©Wink Lorch

The ‘purity of mountain wines’ is something producers of the Trentodoc sparkling wines from Trentino in Italy discuss as much as the winegrowers of Savoie, whose wines so often come from obscure grape varieties that only seem to thrive in these mountain regions. Does this purity really exist? Of course not, but it’s a lovely quality to imagine.

So many mountain wines made from obscure grape varieties offer ethereal wild flower notes or even wild feral notes, that nature seems never far away. And for those from more conventional varieties grown in these challenging conditions, that fresh acidity and minerality makes ‘purity’ seem a given.

Take a walk in a mountain vineyard high above a busy valley, often with a major road running through it, and one feels above the hubbub, above the pollution trapped in the valley, closer to the gods, as it were… The term mountain wines may be meaningless, but the thought of pure mountain wines entices equally as much as pure Alpine air… And Heroic Wines? Yes, often.

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17 thoughts on “Trying to define Mountain Wines

  1. quentinsadler

    Thanks Wink, I found myself describing a Jura wine as Alpine fresh not that long ago and have become quite attached to the phrase as it describes a type of wine that I really like; often in tall fluted bottles, but from all sorts of places – Austria, Galicia, Slovenia, Hungary, Luxembourg etc. – and made from many different grapes, but all with a similar sort of weight, neither too light or heavy, all with good acidity and all very drinkable.

    Of course to a Victorian Mountain wine meant Malaga…

    1. Wink Lorch

      Ha ha, never thought of Malaga, but there are mountains there too!

      But, where the theory falls down is when you think of Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa (which over there would be referred to as a mountain wine)… never in a tall fluted bottle, possibly showing some freshness, but hardly Alpine fresh!

    1. Wink Lorch

      Why ever not, Jesse, since you import some of my favourite Savoie and Jura into California? But, OK, the mountain tag is tricky!

  2. el jefe

    Heroic wines (I like the term) should arguably be from grapes grown successfully in marginal circumstances, which might include altitude but really should encompass all growing conditions – soil, water, climate, etc. – from the Mojave Desert to Alaska to the Olduvai Gorge. On the other hand my highest vineyard is at 2500ft/760m ASL but it’s on a flat in the foothills and the climate is fairly Mediterranean. (And I often find it cute when Napa vintners refer to their 800ft ASL vineyard as “mountain”. 😉

    1. Wink Lorch

      Thanks, Jeff, glad you like the idea of ‘heroic wines’… If it caught on in Napa though we might be back to square one in terminology 😉 Not meaning to denigrate your heroic efforts, though… As a non-wine producer and arguably a critic, I believe all winegrowers are heroic really.

  3. Arnold Waldstein

    Hi Wink

    Love this post.

    Learned a lot. A collaborative musing and educational to boot.

    As a descriptor of a location where a grape is grown and wine made, this works for me. Could include as well, wines from Ribeira Sacra on the terraces above the River Sil.

    As a category for the winemakers to share info around similar challenges, I like this as well.

    As a category that intrigues for the wine obsessed like ourselves, I’m in.

    As a category for the wine appreciator in the broader part of the market, not nearly so sure.

    And as you know, I think the marketplace needs more categories to help guide choice and remember taste against. There are way to few in my opinion.

    I intend to use your category words when I write. But I don’t think it will end up as a tag to search under. I’ve been wrong before though so we shall see.

    1. Wink Lorch

      Thanks Arnold, but I wish I understood what category you think I’m suggesting! I think mountain wines is too broad…. But, did you mean heroic??

  4. Charles Metcalfe

    Good, thoughtful piece, Wink. For me, the first criterion for mountain wines is that they should be over 500 metres. But good examples have to involve steep slopes and diurnal variation, as well.

    By the time you get over 900m, I would agree with ‘heroic viticulture’!

    1. Wink Lorch

      Thanks, Charles… Yes in Europe 900m is seriously high, though some of the steep terraces at altitudes considerably lower – Douro, Mosel, Cinqueterre to name but a few – make for some really heroic viticulture too!

  5. Sally Easton

    Great piece Wink. Do we differentiate between high altitude but flat e.g. Ribera del Duero, Mendoza, versus mountain. Both might have notable diurnals, but to me mountain implies slope and altitude (but I’ll sit on the fence, for the moment, as to when moderate becomes high altitude). Slope (surely) has important insolation effects that are absent on flat, at a similar altitude (all other things being equal, which of course they never are)?

    1. Wink Lorch

      Thanks, Sally, yes agree that vineyards on slopes important for any mountain wine definition, and they are mainly absent in Mendoza…. Chile has a few now at impressive altitudes, but there’s another factor here and that is 1000m altitude at roughly 35° latitude is going to have a different effect than 1000m altitude at roughly 45° latitude, so maybe they don’t count either! How nerdy is that?

  6. Tom

    Wink – I remember you first explaining the effects of altitude at a Cambridge Food and Wine Society presentation you did a few years ago on Argentina and the notion captured my imagination then.

    I think you are grouping a number of ideas together here that may have more potential as a marketing tool than as a wine-writing definition.

    Your main points are about altitude and steepness of the vineyards; as has been mentioned, these two are overlapping parts of a Venn diagram – you can have altitude without steepness (a plateau, e.g. Yecla, I believe) and vice versa (e.g. the Wachau, the Mosel). Or both, such as Austria’s Styria.

    I generally find myself appreciating the lightness yet concentration of wines produced from a long, cool growing season such as the Wachau, Styria or Champagne; IMHO, both altitude and steepness can have a part to play here, but other factors such as latitude, aspect and cool night time air can also be relevant.

    Great post BTW.

    1. Wink Lorch

      Thanks for your thoughts Tom…. Apart from all the technical aspects, there is so much more to this whole category regarding small producers and ‘authenticity’. For example in Europe in certain Alpine areas (and others covered by CERVIM) it is the fact that small producers are reviving (heroically) often previously abandoned plots in seriously steep mountain areas that makes for much of the excitement… And somehow that excitement carries through to the freshness and flavours that emerge in some of the wines.

    1. Wink Lorch

      Certainly I need to visit there, Alfonso, don’t know quite how I’ve missed it all these years. Love the photo and comment of ‘the Macchu Picchu of Italy’ on your post 🙂