Wine

Why Winemakers Are Battling Extreme Terroirs

Winemakers are negotiating dramatic altitudes, latitudes, and climates to bring their bottles to life. Are the risks worth the rewards?

A wide landscape photograph of high elevation vineyards at IXSIR in Lebanon
High elevations and dramatic climates are producing unique results for winemakers. Photo courtesy of IXSIR Winery.

To reach Maran Winery’s vineyard in the Vayots Dzor region of Armenia, winemaker Frunz Harutyunyan loads into a Soviet-era Land Rover and drives into the mountains, curving up the dirt slopes and swerving around switchbacks. He’ll park when he reaches the highest plane: 6,791 feet above sea level. The hour-long drive makes pruning, tilling, and other vineyard tasks incredibly inconvenient. But for Harutyunyan, ultra-high altitude vineyards hold the key to the future of Armenian wine.

Other winemakers around the world are facing similar extremes, battling dramatic altitudes, latitudes, and climates in pursuit of flavor, acidity, and quality. In Canada, ushering Pinot Noir to perfect ripeness includes fighting frost and fire and burying vines in winter. While winemakers in the high hills of California have to battle rattlesnakes and till at grades surpassing 60 percent, the crisp mountain air coaxes Chardonnay into extraordinary form.

To understand the effects of radical terrain, SevenFifty Daily spoke with the winemakers working at the edge of the wine world about the benefits, struggles, and future potential of extreme viticulture.

Taking Winemaking to New Heights

For Joseph Jewell’s Adrian Manspeaker to reach Phelps Vineyard, a 2,000-feet above sea level vineyard he works with in Humboldt County, California, he also has to drive nearly an hour up dirt roads—longer if he’s on a tractor. “You’re really in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “There are all sorts of challenges in Humboldt. Farming is tough because of elevation and climate. We’ve seen smoke taint up there, extreme frost. A few years ago, we lost all of the crop to an April snowfall.” The National Guard was called in to drop supplies to surrounding ranches. 

“And labor is tricky,” Manspeaker continues. “There’s no wine industry to pull resources from. There’s not even repair shops if your tractor breaks down—you learn to fix it yourself.” 

While these challenges are unappealing to many winemakers (“I certainly don’t think this will be the next big thing,” he laughs), the region can produce unique, high-quality grapes. Summers are hot, with a persistent fog that elongates ripening and enhances flavor development. “Humboldt Pinot Noirs have this thick skin which lends tannin and color and builds wines that age extremely well,” says Manspeaker.

IXSIR’s Gabriel Rivero cultivates Ainata Vineyard, a centuries-old property in the shadows of Lebanon’s highest peak. At 5,900 feet above sea level, it spends the entire winter blanketed in snow. Choosing this site was partially a stylistic decision. “Wines from the Mediterranean were not known for their freshness,” says Rivero, the winery’s technical manager. “We didn’t want to make a heavy wine with ripe fruit aromas and jammy notes. So to show the best expression of the Lebanese terroir, it was essential to move to higher altitudes.”

Climate change also had sway in the selection. “We saw what the changes in weather would lead to in other countries,” he says. “So we sought terroirs that are cool, with high altitudes and south-exposed vineyards.” 

But moving into the mountains isn’t a solve-all solution to rising temperatures. Harvests are long, spanning mid-August to the first week of October. Rivero must be careful with site selection and clone selection. He painstakingly prunes to lower frost damage and positions leaves to guard from hot summer winds and winter chills. “The struggles are worth it,” says Rivero. “We find the wines are balanced, with lovely florals and red fruit.”

A wide landscape photograph of a Humboldt County vineyard
Humboldt County produces exceptional-quality grapes thanks in part to its high-elevation vineyards. Photo credit: Heather Daenit.

The quality found at high altitudes is also a positive for Harutyunyan, and he finds benefits beyond his winery. In the next 20 years, rising temperatures are expected to spark a food security crisis and render Armenia’s low-lying regions (where winemaking is centralized) unsuitable for viticulture. He’s currently planting a range of indigenous Armenian varieties and better-known Vitis vinifera at higher altitudes to gauge which grapes offer the most potential. If Harutyunyan can show his peers that higher-altitude plots are viable places for vineyards, production can move into the mountains, leaving the plains free for food-producing crops.

He’s also finding his plots are slowing soil erosion and aiding the local economy—encouraging communities to reclaim mountain vineyards left abandoned during Soviet rule.

Winemaking at the Edge of Possibility

Keith Tyers, the winemaker at Closson Chase Vineyards in Prince Edward County, Canada, finds the dramatic latitude helps Chardonnay and Pinot Noir reach the ideal ripeness. “I find Pinot tends to show itself best in the margins of the wine world,” he says.

Closson Chase’s location on the north shore of Lake Ontario benefits from a warming lake effect but still, vines are routinely and painstakingly hilled up every winter. “We also have to net for migratory birds, fence for raccoons, and unbury the vines each year in the spring,” says Tyers.

Hang times are longer and yields are ridiculously low. But so are Burgundy’s, he points out, and grapes here are equally expressive of place. “When you harvest the fruit, it tells you exactly what the year was like,” says Tyers. “The fruit tells a beautiful story through texture, flavor, depth, richness.”

He finds that with climate change, winters are getting less severe. “We may reconsider hilling up and likely won’t have to irrigate in the future,” he says.

Otronia winemaker Juan Pablo Murgia works in Patagonia’s Steppe desert in a region known as Sarmiento. At the 45th parallel, it’s one of the southernmost vineyards in the world. “That translates to extreme winds—typical in southern Patagonia—and intense sunlight,” he says. To battle the breeze, Murgia has had to implement tree and technology-driven wind-break techniques.

Hurdles aside, Murgia finds “once you sort out these geographical factors, they become allies. Together we force the vines to adapt and produce incredible profiles for the grapes, full of richness and acidity, but also elegant and balanced.” 

Working with Climate Extremes

Awareness is one of the bigger issues remote winemakers face. Murgia is one of a handful of wineries in Patagonia, but he’s advocating for more attention: Last year, the country’s National Institute of Viticulture (INV) recognized Sarmiento as a new geographical indication of Argentina. 

In Outaouais, a region in northwestern Quebec, Martin Dandenault, the owner and winemaker of Vignoble les Collines finds “one of the biggest difficulties in the early years was that we didn’t know what to plant. We were one of the only wineries in the region and there was no help around—no one to compare notes with.” So, he planted French hybrids like Baco Noir, then ripped them up. “They needed too much supervision,” he noted. “You must cover the vines by hand in the winter, but that labor would bring our bottle cost up to almost $30. It’s hard enough getting people to buy Outaouais wines.”

A view of Armenian mountains from an outdoor table laid with Maran wines
Frunz Harutyunyan, the winemaker of Maran Winery, is testing higher altitudes against the effects of climate change. Photo courtesy of Kate Dingwall.

Over time, he settled on hybrid grape varieties that are more adept at surviving cold Canadian winters: Frontenac, Saint Pepin, and Marquette. It requires more education with customers—who prefers Saint Pepin over Pinot Noir?—but these grapes thrive in the Outaouais terroir.

It isn’t just extreme regions battling dramatic climates. In the Napa Valley, Grgich Hills Estates’ Ivo Jeramaz practices regenerative agriculture because he believes in the philosophies—capturing carbon and future-proofing the planet—but he’s found the efforts are protecting his vineyards. His vineyards are lush, green, and alive, with cover crops like buckwheat and sunflowers growing wild between the vines. When crops creep too high, he crimps it down to create a protective coating for the soil.

In 2022, a heat wave spiked temperatures in the Napa Valley to an unprecedented 116 degrees. Neighboring Rutherford vineyards were hit hard—ambient heat rose off the soil, drying out the land and raisining the grapes. At Grgich Hills, the cover crops helped control the temperature and shelter the soil from the sweltering heat. Their crop survived. This year, his vines are equally energetic, dotted with Monarch butterflies and flush with flora. So are his neighbors. 

With some trial and error, winemakers are finding that the risks of extreme viticulture are often worth it, but letting the land dictate direction is crucial. “It’s our job to protect the land,” says Jeramaz. “And look—the vineyards are alive.”

Dispatch

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By day, Kate is a writer, editor, and photographer covering the intersection between spirits, business, culture, and travel. By night, she’s a WSET-trained working sommelier at one of the top restaurants in Canada. She writes about strong drinks and nice wines for Forbes.com, Wine Enthusiast, Vogue, Maxim, InsideHook, People Magazine, Southern Living, Liquor.com, and The Toronto Star

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