How does altitude influence the wine?
Alto Adige is the ideal wine region to analyse this point.
We’ve already explored its main characteristics and its seven wine growing regions (Bassa Atesina, Oltradige, Bolzano, Adige Valley, Merano, Isarco Valley, and Val Venosta).
Alto Adige offers a huge range of altitude where the vineyards are cultivated. They stretch from 200 m to 1,000 m above sea level.
You can find the same grape variety grown at a lower altitude as well as at a higher altitude. The characteristics of Alto Adige wine from lower altitude will be different from that at higher altitude.
Now, I’ll share with you all the essential information about the influence of altitude on wine. In addition, we’ll compare three grape varieties (Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Riesling) from Alto Adige wines at different altitudes.
Are you ready?
The first thing to know about altitude is that the temperature falls by around 0.6°C for every 100 m increase in altitude. But, as the temperature drops with altitude, sunshine levels increase.
Another point is that high altitudes offer a high diurnal range (the difference between day and night temperatures).
All these points have an influence on the respiration of the vines that becomes slower and they can retain more acids. Therefore, wines will be fresher.
Altitude is also important when considering climate change.
Temperatures are higher than in past. This is causing a decrease in levels of acidity and an increase in those of sugar, resulting in higher alcohol.
High temperatures also mean more water stress for the vines, therefore it’s important to apply the right water management techniques in the vineyard (irrigation systems, reducing evaporation, increasing humus levels in the soil, etc).
Another option is to use drought-tolerant rootstocks and grape varieties.
In the end, you can combat climate change by changing the elevation of the vineyards. Prior to 2010, just 0.5 ha of vineyards in Alto Adige were over 1,000 m above sea level. Now, there are more than 8 ha.
The highest vineyards are at Monte Maria: 1,300 m above sea level for Solaris (PIWI), and at Aldino: 1,150 m above sea level for Pinot Noir.
The effects on Alto Adige wine
In Alto Adige, demanding varieties such as Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, or Pinot Noir are cultivated at mid-high altitudes. Instead, late varieties such as Lagrein, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon are grown at lower altitudes.
In comparing the three grape varieties, it’s inevitable to find different winemaking techniques. They will not be specifically analysed here because the focus is on altitude.
You can immediately recognise it during a blind tasting due to its very intense aromas. An Alto Adige wine made by Gewürztraminer grape looks elegant, clear, and crisp. It’s also used in the production of sweet wines.
The average altitude of the Gewürztraminer vineyards is 433 m above sea level, with the lowest site at 206 m and the highest at 814 m.
Here, we have Abbazia di Novacella Gewürztraminer Praepositus and Kurtatsch Gewürztraminer Riserva Brenntal. Both the wines are 2018 vintage.
The grapes of Praepositus (Isarco Valley) are grown at 600-650 m above sea level while those of Brenntal (Bassa Atesina) are at 250-300 m above sea level.
Both wines have a medium lemon colour. Abbazia di Novacella looks brighter than Kurtatsch. The nose has a more pronounced intensity in the case of Kurtatsch. Abbazia di Novacella presents more citrus aromas (lemon and lychee) than Kurtatsch that is more on yellow fruits (peach and mango). The acidity of the wines is medium, but Abbazia di Novacella is slightly higher. The alcohol is high for both the wines but the body is lighter for Abbazia di Novacella, this one is medium+ while Kurtatsch is full. The finish is long in both cases.
Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder)
It’s considered the most royal of the grape varieties in Alto Adige. Pinot Noir is very delicate (thin skin means rot, fungus and mildew) but the wines based on Pinot Noir are fine and elegant with great ageing potential.
Pinot Noir is grown at an average altitude of 497 m above sea level. The lowest vineyards are at 206 m while the highest reach 1,140 m above sea level.
In this case, the wines are Falkenstein Pinot Noir and Girlan Trattmann Pinot Noir Riserva. 2017 is the vintage for both wines.
Falkenstein grows its Pinot Noir at 600-700 m above sea level in Val Venosta. Pinot Noir from Girlan is a blend of more vineyards in Bassa Atesina: ~75% Mazzon (360-440 m above sea level), ~15% Cornaiano (450-530 m above sea level), ~10% Pinzano/Montagna (450 m above sea level).
The colour is pale ruby, slightly darker for Girlan. The aromas of Girlan are more concentrated (cherry and cloves) while Falkenstein has less concentration and more floral aromas (rose and wild strawberry). During the tasting, you can recognise immediately the biggest difference. Girlan is full body and Falkenstein is medium, while the alcohol is high for Girlan and medium for Falkenstein. This fact is due to the difference in both altitude and soils (more sandy in the first and more calcareous in the second). Tannins are grippy in the first case and soft in the second. Both wines have high acidity and the finish is very similar, long and medium+.
It was introduced in Alto Adige during the 19th century. Riesling from Alto Adige can give a mineral wine with pleasant fruit flavours (lemon, apricot, peach). The residual of sugar is very low, also zero.
The vineyards of Riesling are located at an average of 601 m above sea level. The minimum point is 208 m and the maximum is 1,012 m above sea level.
This comparison is between Falkenstein Riesling 2018 and St. Michael Eppan Riesling Montiggl 2019.
Falkenstein Riesling comes from Val Venosta at 600-900 m above sea level, while St. Michael Eppan Riesling is from Oltradige at 480-550 m above sea level.
Their colour is a pale lemon, just a bit brighter Falkenstein. On the nose, you can recognise the first difference, although the vintage is different (try with the same vintage and you’ll get the same impressions). The nose of Falkenstein is crisper and more on citrus aromas (lemon and orange peel) while St. Michael Eppan is more on yellow fruits (peach and honeysuckle). The typical petrol-like aroma that you can find in a Riesling wine is more intense for Falkenstein. Also the acidity is higher in Falkenstein. Both wines have medium alcohol and medium body. Falkenstein has a long finish while St. Michael Eppan has a medium+.
What’s your favourite style?
Remember, low and high altitudes can give two different styles.
Let’s recap in a nutshell how altitude influences wines.
High altitudes will be cooler and with a higher diurnal range than low altitudes. This means a higher acidity, less alcohol as well as body, crisper sensations and more citrus aromas (white wines) or berry fruit aromas (red wines).
Wines produced from grapes grown at low altitudes will have lower acidity, higher alcohol, a fuller body, more concentrations, and more yellow fruit aromas (white wines) or jammy aromas (red wines).
So, what’s your favourite style?
I’m very curious to know!
Try some Alto Adige wines produced at different altitudes (maybe the same wines in my comparison) and find your favourite.