Many factors affect how a grape grows, and the wine that results from it. In South America, for example, altitude plays a huge role.
Slight changes in altitude can have drastic effects. Just a couple hundred feet in elevation change micro climates, thereby changing the expressions of the same varietals. However, what makes South America special in the wine world is the extreme altitudes at which grapes grow.
In the Northern Hemisphere, few grape growing regions exist above 2,500 ft, with most hovering from a few hundred feet to 1,500 ft. In South America, there are areas in Chile that sit below sea level, and there are places in Argentina that have vineyards higher than 6,500 ft!
One little country takes the cake, though, when it comes to growing grapes at altitude, and that is Bolivia. If you want to get to know Bolivian winemaking and grape growing, check out this recap of a Master Class we hosted and taught by Bolivian winemaker Francisco Roig. In short, Bolivia starts growing grapes where the rest of the world stops. Being so close to the equator, if Bolivia’s grape growing areas weren’t so high up, they wouldn’t be able to produce grapes suitable for wine.
When he was here in the Fall of 2018, Sebastian Zuccardi dropped a nugget of knowledge when he explained that, ‘the plant’s job is to protect the seed in the grape. At high altitude, the grapes are subjected to more intense UV rays. They form a thicker skin to combat this. This means wines from altitude therefore have a more intense color."
Altitude can also create a wider “diurnal range,” if the region in question is relatively far north, or closer to the equator. This means that it gets very hot during the day, and very cold at night. The temperature can swing as much as 50 degrees in the super high altitude region of Valle de Uco in Mendoza, for example. This leads to grapes that retain more natural acidity without sacrificing ripeness, a common problem in warm climate regions.
So next time you sip on something from Argentina or Bolivia, remember that without the Andes, those wines wouldn’t exist! And they certainly wouldn’t be so incredible!