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Drink Is Extreme Winemaking About To Become The New Normal?

Is Extreme Winemaking About To Become The New Normal?

Is Extreme Winemaking About To Become The New Normal?
By Rachel Duffell
February 27, 2019
Pioneering winemakers are taking vines to new frontiers—and delivering delights

In spring 2017 temperatures dropped to minus five in Morgex et La Salle in the Aosta Valley in northwest Italy. For three nights running they persisted.

As a result Cave Mont Blanc lost an entire year’s grape harvest. New vines of roussin de morgex, a native red grape that winemaker Nicola del Negro is experimenting with and which had been planted the year prior were killed, and while the vines of prié blanc, the vineyard’s mainstay, survived, there would be no grapes for a 2017 vintage.

These are the perils of making wine at the limits, yet many are taking such risks. And there are rewards to be reaped.

Cave Mont Blanc, nestled in the foothills of its famed namesake mountain, is among the highest vineyards in Europe (Photo: Courtesy of Cave Mont Blanc)
Cave Mont Blanc, nestled in the foothills of its famed namesake mountain, is among the highest vineyards in Europe (Photo: Courtesy of Cave Mont Blanc)

Cave Mont Blanc is nestled in the foothills of Mont Blanc, and is among the highest vineyards in Europe with vines planted between 1,000 and 1,200 metres above sea level. At these lofty heights, the indigenous prié blanc grape thrives, giving way to sparkling and white wines with searing acidity, dry minerality and fresh, crisp fruit flavours.

Vines have long been grown at altitude, often to offset hot climates, but they are increasingly going higher. Some of the loftiest vineyards in the world lie in Argentina, at heights greater than 3,000 metres above sea level, though the title of highest vineyard according to the Guinness Book of World Records is in fact the Pure Land & Super-High Altitude Vineyard, situated at 3,563m in Tibet, China.

Winemaking in China is no longer new, but winemakers are looking to fresh pastures. Moët Hennessy has made a foray into winemaking with Ao Yun, located in the foothills of the Himalayas, not far from Shangri-La in Yunnan Province, with vineyards ranging in altitude from 2,200 to 2,600 metres.

“We chose our place because the terroir shows the best potential in China to give birth to fine and unique, great wine,” says Maxence Dulou, estate manager at Ao Yun. “It took us four years to identify the place. The remote location makes logistics complex and expensive, and the cultural and language diversity are sometimes challenging.” The steep slopes at Ao Yun also mean that harvest and winemaking are done by hand. But the climate has been likened to that of Bordeaux and the vineyard’s second vintage, the 2014 Ao Yun, has already met with acclaim. Master of Wine Jeannie Cho Lee wrote that finally there is “a Chinese wine that expresses its unique origins and is distinctly different from other high-quality cabernet sauvignon blends in the world” before lamenting the limited quantities—only 2,000 cases are released internationally.

Ao Yun, positioned in the foothills of the Himalayas, captured oenophiles' attentions with their Bordeaux-like wines (Photo: Courtesy of Ao Yun)
Ao Yun, positioned in the foothills of the Himalayas, captured oenophiles' attentions with their Bordeaux-like wines (Photo: Courtesy of Ao Yun)

With greater extremes such as altitude come heightened expenditure and often increased exposure, particularly to inclement and unpredictable weather. But with climate change, winemakers in more traditional wine producing areas are increasingly finding themselves at the whim of the weather, too, and this is another reason for the establishment and growth of new wine regions. Winemaking in the south of England, for example, has taken off, and winemakers are moving further north, too.

Wines have traditionally been made between the latitudes of 30 and 50 degrees in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Yet Lerkekasa vineyard in Norway is located at 59 degrees north and claims to be one of the most northern wineries in the world. “Very cold winters and short ripening time for the grapes in late summer are the two biggest challenges for grape production,” says Odd Eugen Wollberg. Yet he has found solutions.

“We looked for plants that are not traditional in southwestern Europe, rather towards Russia and North America,” says Wollberg. The vineyard settled on the red grape hasansky sladki from Russia, and solaris, a white grape developed in Germany. With excellent soil conditions, Wollberg says, “it is only a matter of finding the grape species that are tough enough.” 

With climate change, winemakers in more traditional wine producing areas are increasingly finding themselves at the whim of the weather, too, and this is another reason for the establishment and growth of new wine regions

It has been the same at Cave Mont Blanc where the native, and hardy, prié blanc is the grape of choice. “This grape needs the altitude. Anywhere else it doesn’t arrive at a good maturation for making wine,” says del Negro.

In Sweden, Blaxsta vineyard produces exceptional ice wine at 59 degrees north of the equator (Photo: Courtesy of Blaxsta)
In Sweden, Blaxsta vineyard produces exceptional ice wine at 59 degrees north of the equator (Photo: Courtesy of Blaxsta)

Goran Amnegard, chief winemaker at Blaxsta vineyard in Sweden, also at 59 degrees north, argues that his vineyard offers some of “the very best conditions to grow high quality grapes for wine making,” but that this is a little known fact because until Sweden joined the EU in 1995, it was illegal to produce alcohol.

At Blaxsta, Amnegard plants various grapes, such as vidal blanc, which dominates and is used for ice wine, chardonnay, and merlot, all of which have a short growing season. With 25 per cent more daylight hours during the growing period than winemakers in Bordeaux, as well as highly mineral soil, Amnegard says that the grapes develop “an intensity in aromas, flavour and structure that other places do not have.”

The critics seem to approve. Blaxsta’s vidal ice wine received a Gold award at the Challenge International du Vin and its various bottlings have been acclaimed by Master of Wine Robert Parker.

Despite the challenges, there’s a distinct advantage to living —and planting—in the edge, which many of the extreme winemakers highlight.

“As a result of the cold winter temperatures, much of the diseases and irritating insects will not survive. This cleaner environment allows us to grow our wines fully organically,” says Armegard. Often vineyards at the extremes are able to produce organic and/or natural wines.

Countries such as Thailand are also producing sizeable quantities of wine (Photo: Courtesy of Monsoon Valley)
Countries such as Thailand are also producing sizeable quantities of wine (Photo: Courtesy of Monsoon Valley)
With a hot climate, most Thai vineyards get about two crops a year (Photo: Courtesy of Monsoon Valley)
With a hot climate, most Thai vineyards get about two crops a year (Photo: Courtesy of Monsoon Valley)

At the other end of the weather spectrum, hot countries traditionally weren’t often home to vineyards, but both India and Thailand have been producing some well-regarded wines. In Thailand, floating vineyards at Samut Sakorn, whose grapes have been used by Siam Winery under the Monsoon Valley label, implemented canals of water to keep grapes cool and prevent them from drying up. Other vineyards in both India and Thailand grow their grapes at a high elevation. In such heated climes, most vineyards get two crops a year, but for quality wines producers harvest only once.

As climate change continues apace, new opportunities are opening up for ambitious winemakers in places where the combination of untested conditions and often a lack of winemaking tradition allows for innovation, ingenuity and intriguing wines.

The idea of vineyards in a busy metropolis such as Hong Kong, for example, was recently floated by the city's former Chief Secretary Henry Tang, known wine connoisseur and collector. Tang suggested that the West Kowloon Cultural District could be an appropriate place to plant hardy grapes such as chardonnay and merlot. He has reportedly already contacted vineyard owners in France to discuss the viability of growing grapes in the city’s own subtropical climes.

New opportunities continue to open up for ambitious winemakers in places where the combination of untested conditions, a changing global climate and a lack of winemaking tradition allows for innovation, ingenuity and intriguing wines.

“There is nothing better than participating in the discovery of a new terroir,” says Dulou. “When all regular areas have already been found, the extreme areas are left to give birth to creativity so we can share this new terroir’s expression with the world.”

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