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How are wine producers adapting to make the most of mountains?

Planting at altitude pushes vines, and their growers, to extremes. Eloise Feilden looks at how winemakers are adapting their practices to better deal with their elevated surroundings.

How are wine producers adapting to make the most of mountains?
Vineyards in the Swiss Alps hand-harvested by Domaine Jean-René Germanier

Mountains are a constant, but how we deal with them is constantly changing.

Maxence Dulou, winemaker and estate director for Ao Yun, LVMH’s fine wine project in China, says that each vintage of the Chinese wine is shaped by what is learned in the cellar each year.

In 2017, Dulou’s team began extending the harvest period for Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the four mountain villages where the producer has vineyards: Xidang, Sinong, Shuori and Adong. Harvesting now begins in mid-September and extends to late November – all for one grape variety.

“We learn every day, and implement a lot of new things season after season,” Dulou says. “Every year we’re going further,” but perfecting it “will take decades.”

China’s Yunnan region experiences wet summers and warm, dry autumns, and Ao Yun adapts its management of water in the vineyard accordingly. Vines are grafted high off the ground during the summer months to reduce disease risk but, weeks before the harvest, Dulou and his team reduce the canopy height by between 20cm and 40cm to conserve water.

Given the elevated exposure which often comes with steep slopes, grape maturity also poses a challenge for altitude winemakers.

For Argentinian producer Achaval Ferrer, managing yields becomes a “crucial factor in achieving excellent ripeness at harvest time”, says winemaker Gustavo Rearte.

In Europe, Swiss producer Domaine Jean-René Germanier is moving on from the hand harvesting method typically used in steep slope viticulture to use small caterpillar tractors and drones in order to lower production costs, which are typically four times higher than in a fully mechanised vineyard.

However skilful the viticulturist, the grapes have the final say when it comes to how successfully they grow. Lebanon’s Ixsir winery is exploring mountain ranges higher than 1,800m to see how grapes will fare. Winemaker Gabriel Rivero says he is also working on adapting other varieties at higher altitude – Viognier and Muscat for the whites, and Cabernet Franc for the reds. The winery is planning to see in the years to come how the vines can adapt to new extremes.

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