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In focus: Altitude in Argentina

With a large proportion of Argentina’s vineyards planted at over 1,000m, and some as high as 3,000m, making wine in the country can be a challenge, but producers are using these high-altitude vines to their advantage.

Argentina’s vineyards are defined by their altitude. While in most Old World wine regions, 600 metres to 800m above sea level is considered high, in Argentina, altitude is measured on a completely different scale. A significant proportion of the country’s vines are grown at a height of well above 1,000m, with some vineyards as high as 3,300m.

This altitude is a key factor influencing the style of Argentine grapes, with high solar intensity matched by a high diurnal temperature range, allowing the grapes to maintain high levels of acidity. It is for this reason that in some areas of Mendoza, which is in effect an irrigated dessert, high quality sparkling wine grapes, usually requiring cool climates, can be grown.

Two regions in Argentina are particularly known for their extreme altitude: the Uco Valley, to the west of Mendoza; and the four northern provinces of Salta, Jujuy, Tucumán and Catamarca.

In the Uco Valley, which has altitudes of up to 2,200m in the sub-region of Gualtallary, Laura Principiano, agronomist at Familia Zuccardi, explains how the region’s altitudes and soils have led to a change in winemaking practices at the company. In 2010 things began to change, with the producer now shirking stainless steel in favour of concrete amphorae for fermentation.

“In the past our Chardonnay was different,” Principiano says. “But when we moved to the Uco Valley we sourced our grapes from different areas, and changed our methods in the winery. We altered our picking times, opting for an earlier harvest. In the past we used commercial yeasts and new barrels. Now we use natural yeast and old barrels.”

Manuel González, chief winemaker of Andeluna in the Tupungato district of the Uco Valley agrees. “We’re looking for less oak impact and more identity. In the past we used to work with many coopers, and we had 1,500 barrels. Now we only have 600. We’re moving to larger barrels, we’re buying a foudre, we have ceramic barrels and we have an amphora too. The idea is to work with oak but on balance and to respect the place.”

Belén Iacono, viticulturist at Catena Zapata’s Adrianna Vineyard in Gualtallary, is similarly emphatic about the differences that altitude can make. “Gualtallary is divided into three main areas and these can range from 3 to a 1 on the Winkler Index,” she says, the equivalent of the difference in temperature between Rioja in Spain and Champagne in France.

The 75-hectare Adrianna Vineyard is planted between the altitudes of 1,400m and 1,500m. When the Catena family bought and planted the land in the 1990s it was only worth US$25 (£20) per hectare. It is now worth $140,000 for the same area. Altitude makes money.

Meanwhile, in the northern province of Salta, both the latitude and the altitude mean that producers must be selective about which grapes they grow, believes Lucía Romero, director of Bodega El Porvenir, based in Cafayate.

“We are never going to have varieties that are sensitive to the sun,” she says. “Our biggest issue is acidity and retaining it with the amount of sun that we get. That is why Tannat, with its naturally high acidity, works so well here. Salta can make powerful wines but if you monitor the vineyards and move your harvest dates forward, you can produce lighter styles with different fruit profiles.”

To reflect the extreme altitude, El Esteco, based in Salta and owned by Grupo Peñaflor, has released a wine called Blend de Extremos, combining grapes sourced from Cafayate, at 1,700m, and Chañar Punco in Catamarca, at 2,000m.

The deeply hued wine highlights the region’s typicity, believes Carolina Garicoche, head brand ambassador at Grupo Peñaflor.

“The wine was fermented with between 10% and 15% whole clusters,” she says. “A quarter of it spends 12 months in French oak, while the rest is aged in concrete tanks and stainless steel. We always aim to have balance in a region that naturally produces high sugar.”

Likewise, Grupo Colomé also aims to pay homage to grapes from different altitudes. CEO Matthieu Naef says: “Our first winery, Amalaya, is in Cafayate, and is 1,700m above sea level. Then it’s Colomé at 2,300m, followed by El Arenal at 2,700m and finally, after a half-hour drive 3,011m, Altura Maxima.

“The higher in altitude you go with the red grapes, the tougher the skins become and greater the concentration of sugars. It can be challenging having four altitudes, especially when it comes to harvest. We can start in February and we can go as late as May. But it’s the essence of what we do here.”

Another winery demonstrating what altitude can do is Bodega Agustín Lanús, which produces a line called Sunal, featuring grapes all sourced from above 2,100m.

The producer sources grapes from the provinces of Salta, Catamarca and Tucumán. “The difference between the altitude and the extreme altitude range is the deeper colour caused by the thicker grape skins,” says Gastón Silva. “At these altitudes we get half the yields that we do lower down in the Cafayate Valley.” Altitude, therefore, can have a defining influence on both the colour and the style of wine made in Argentina. Furthermore the sub-genre of ‘extreme altitude wines’ is developing in the Uco Valley and the northern regions.

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