Altitude Matters

california red wine stonestreet rockfall cabernet sauvignon

With so may factors impacting the making of great wine, growing conditions of the grapes stands out as one of the more important. In my mission to help you identify wines you like and why, a short lesson on the conditions and flavors of high altitude wines, or the mountain wine growing that precedes it, is helpful. And, it sure is a lot of fun to learn about.

A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of learning about the topic when the crew from Stonestreet Wines, an Alexander Mountain Estate in Sonoma, paid a visit to Chicago. Informative winemaker since 2004 Graham Weerts along with energetic and knowledgeable Director of Wine Education Gilian Handelman presented a small group of us wine folks with an opportunity, via a blind tasting, to identify a common thread across high altitude wines spanning the globe.

What makes these wines distinctly different from other wines in their respective regions and other wines in general? It’s a combination of the weather conditions and environment, along with various factors in the winemaker process. In the Alexander Valley, on the slopes of the Mayacamas Mountain, the high elevations, volcanic soils and a fog that rolls in off the coast deliver unique conditions for these Stonestreet wines. While, generally speaking,  temperatures cool as we climb in elevation, here the maritime breezes causes an inversion of this phenomenon. At these higher altitude in this Sonoma county area, it’s actually warmer at night due to fog cover. This impact the ripening process of the grapes and they in turn, develop into full ripe grapes. Up these arid mountains there’s also less disease pressure. The dryness keep the vines from growing molds that impact grapes and in turn, the wine flavors.

In terms of weather, grapes grown mountain side not only have the benefit of that fog, they also have quicker run-off of rainfall which keep the grapes from becoming diluted. Flavors are actually intensified. The environment/ecology also contributes an entirely different range of influences and flavors. The flora and fauna up the mountains, as we all know from hiking, skiing or just touring, is distinctly different with more herbal and evergreen notes.  These hints come through in the wine, giving more herbaceous aromas and flavors.

For this fun blind tasting, we tasting wines form the following mountainous regions; 

The comparative tasting was amazing and together we arrived at a consensus in this very interactive tasting. We all basically agreed that there’s undeniably a common thread of herbaceous aromas, notes of green gage, even under-ripe veggies. On the finish the wines were extremely well balanced , a nod to the payoff of growing in high altitude regions, despite the arduous work involved..

This is one experience that I’d say certainly try at home…don’t even hesitate. If you have a wine group or just friends who like to taste and learn together, put the high elevation wine category on your list. It’s amazing how you can taste and smell that fresh mountain air in each sip.

A big thanks to fellow sommelier and wine consultant Bonnie Graves for reaching out to our Chicago crowd for this event.


About Laura Levy Shatkin

Laura Levy Shatkin served for 10 years as food and wine critic for the Chicago Reader. Later, she became an Emmy-nominated executive producer for Taste, a 30-minute food and wine show on NBC-5 Chicago, which later merged into, where Ms. Levy is a partner/owner. Today, she teaches private wine classes and hosts wine parties for consumers and firms, and continues to tell the video stories of wine, girlfriends and wine travel on her TCW blog, Wine…ing Women.