August 20, 2018 / Luxury Lifestyle

Top of the World: High-Altitude Winemaking

From the steep slopes of Napa to a boutique vineyard in the Himalayas and plots perched among the Argentinian Andes, high-elevation winemaking is gaining ground


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.

You need a head for heights—and nerves of steel—to visit Ao Yun, Moët Hennessy’s Himalayan wine estate. Photograph and banner image: Juan Hitters.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.

For centuries, local farmers have adapted to working the steep land surrounding Ao Yun in the Himalayas.  Photograph: Juan Hitters.“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.”

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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.

The idyllic Shangri-La region of China, where Ao Yun is based, is located where Tibet, Sichuan, and Yunnan meet. Photograph: Juan Hitters.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.

For a vineyard to thrive high up in the Argentinian Andes, where rainfall is scarce, it has to be self-reliant. At the world's highest vineyard, Altura Maxima, water flows from a ruined Inca irrigation canal to power a water turbine and produce electricity for the estate. Photograph: Robert Russo.“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.

Set at 22,000 feet (5,706 meters) above sea level, the altitude at Ao Yun provides the ideal conditions for the vineyard’s acclaimed wine. Photograph: Juan Hitters.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.

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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.”

To respect tradition, Ao Yun estate manager Maxence Dulou ensures all harvesting and winemaking is done entirely by hand. Photograph: Juan Hitters.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.”

High-flying varieties
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).

Ao Yun's debut 2013 vintage—a blend of 90 percent  Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Cabernet Franc—produced just 2,000 cases, making it especially appealing to collectors.“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.

Stunning Himalayan mountain vistas surround Moët Hennessey’s Ao Yun winery, in China's Yunnan province. Photograph: Juan Hitters.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.

Related: Discover Why English Sparkling Wine Is Gaining Ground

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.

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Laura Burgess
is a certified sommelier who writes about wine for VinePair and at