The Himalayas’ jagged, snow-capped peaks have inspired adventurers and artists for centuries, but rarely have their silhouettes been linked to winemaking—until now. As climate change and extreme weather continue to disrupt growing seasons across Burgundy, Bordeaux, and other long-established regions, vintners are climbing vertigo-inducing slopes to challenge long-standing industry traditions and invent new ones.
With the launch in 2016 of Ao Yun, Moët Hennessy’s Himalayan wine estate, the region’s epic peaks now feature vineyards interspersed with vistas. But these aren’t mere landscaping perks at luxury resorts—they’re rugged estates that take the phrase “high elevation” to a whole new level, substituting châteaux for breathtaking views everywhere from Mexico to Switzerland.
“Think of elevation as a solar panel,” says Christie’s New York-based senior wine specialist Scott Torrence. “Going up is a way to gain access to the sun, and to mitigate rainfall and drainage, which together give grapes the ideal ratio of tannins and acid. Align grape variety with elevation and climate, and you get the world’s great wines.”
France’s Côte-Rôtie, Switzerland’s Valais, and Valle d’Aosta in Italy are historic, high-altitude regions where slope and sunshine harmonize to ripen grapes. Compared with their sea-level cousins, these extreme locations add a tasteable twist to the finished wines.
Situated in the Shangri-La region of Southwest China, Ao Yun is ripening Bordeaux varieties at a breathtaking 22,000 feet (5,706 meters) above sea level. Challenged by sharp precipices and plots as small as a few rows, the operation barely resembles a traditional vineyard, yet receives the same average rainfall as the Bordeaux region.
Extreme terrain and weather create a thicker skin on the grape, making for a more complex flavor
Thousands of miles from Ao Yun, vineyards have been thriving in Argentina since missionaries arrived in the Andes high desert nearly two centuries ago. Perched in the country’s Salta subregion, Colomé Estate is the country’s oldest, and highest, winery.
“Elevation in Argentina is a factor in quality. Higher is better, highest is best,” says Nicole Carter, director of winemaking at Hess Collection, which owns the estate.
A handful of factors, including slope, drainage, wind currents, and weather patterns, contribute to the effects of altitude, which is why elevation in Argentina is considered “high” at 7,500 feet (2,286 meters), whereas in California “high altitude” ranges from 650 feet (198 meters) in Napa to 3,200 feet (975 meters) in Sierra Nevada.
At Napa Valley’s Promontory, the latest venture from legendary vintner H William Harlan of cult winery Screaming Eagle, lower elevations provide inspiration for the area’s famed Cabernet Sauvignon. On the edge of Oakville, a slope of nearly 40 percent makes farming tough, but the intersection of two ancient fault lines provides incredible drainage and unique conditions for robust reds.
Think of elevation as a solar panel. Align grape variety with elevation and climate, and you get the world’s great wines
“Extreme terrain and weather create a thicker skin on the grape, making for a more complex flavor,” says Carter. “At high elevation you get higher acidity, great color from skins, and wines with high-toned floral character and fine-grained tannin structure.”
Structure and complexity
Cloud-kissed vines yield smaller berries with a higher concentration of tannins, anthocyanin, and polyphenols—the molecules that give red wines aromatic and flavor complexity—as well as tannic structure for aging.
Winemaker Maxence Dulou, estate manager of Ao Yun (which means “flying above the clouds”), explains: “We usually say that great Bordeaux wines have around 1,200mg/liter [0.19oz/gallon] of the red color molecule anthocyanin at the end of alcoholic fermentation. We are frequently observing quantities that are higher than 1,500mg/liter [0.24oz/gallon] in the grapes that go into Ao Yun.”
In addition, these vineyards experience enormous temperature swings—sometimes as much as 70°F (21°C) between night and day. These abrupt changes slow the ripening process, helping grapes retain their vibrant, refreshing acidity.
These wines are built for longevity. Valley floor wines, in contrast, are more approachable in their youth
“These are stout, long-aging wines because the acidity and tannins are more intense,” says Torrence. “These wines are built for longevity. Valley floor wines, in contrast, are more approachable in their youth.”
Thick-skinned, sturdy red grape varieties with shorter growing seasons, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot, do best in sky-high vineyards, though Riesling can also thrive in select areas including Germany and the high desert of New Mexico, where young plantings at Vivác Winery are yielding bright, complex results at 6,000 feet (1,829 meters).
“We learned very quickly that varieties that required long ripening cycles were not going to work at Colomé,” explains Carter. Today, the estate focuses on Malbec, and compared with nearby Mendoza’s magenta-hued, easy-drinking reds, its wines are in a category all their own. The Altura Maxima bottling—farmed at the world’s highest vineyard at 10,207 feet (3,111 meters)—is nearly black in color, with fruity aromatics and a full-bodied structure that begs to open up in decanting, or get laid down to be aged for another decade.
Mexico’s wine regions are also taking advantage of elevation to craft a number of fine wines. At 6,900 feet (2,103 meters), Don Leo vineyard has planted Zinfandel, Shiraz, and Chardonnay varieties. An exemplar of the potential for wine in unlikely locales, height mitigates a tropical climate to yield elegant, complex wines.
While elevation is usually consigned to a tiny typeface on bottles’ back labels, these wines are now reaching lofty heights. And as vintners explore new peaks, these mountain vines are flourishing almost faster than we can drink the results.