What makes wines produced at high elevations so unique? What does a wine produced at an extreme growing altitude of 6,800 ft have to offer?
Vinters push the boundaries of environmental possibility when producing grapes at high altitude; however, these wines offer many unique characteristics. Arid climate, exposure to intense sunlight, significant temperature differentials from day to night(diurnal shifts), and other factors work in harmony to create wines with intense flavor and beautiful deep color.
Grape vines are extremely hardy with roots that can grow to depths of up to 100 ft. Now, how does this relate to wine? As roots grow to lower depths seeking water, they enter different layers of the soil profile. Each soil profile has different nutrients available to the root system. Although the mountains see heavy snowfall, vineyards in the valley do not often receive an abundance of water. Much is lost to runoff and other factors. Generally, vines at high elevation produce fewer and smaller clusters as it is using the water/nutrients available for survival.
The small number of grape clusters present on each vine undergo a very slow ripening period due to the drastic temperature changes during the day. The temperature may drop by 40 degrees on an average night. Quite the contrast from other growing regions in the world. This significant diurnal shift directly affects the sugar content in the grapes; Higher sugar content will be present in grapes grown at higher altitude.
The higher the elevation, the more intense the sunlight. Grape clusters respond to this extreme sunlight by developing thicker skins which leads to higher levels of antioxidants and tannins. Another benefit of this direct and concentrated sunlight is darker pigment in grape clusters.
From a growers standpoint, grape production at high altitudes can be very rewarding but also, extremely risky. Local Cedaredge Vintner, Richard Nunamaker describes it as follows,
“This is a place that defies the rational bounds of profitable agricultural production. Such a vineyard must be motivated by something other than money—a kind of passionate audacity. The vintner’s act of defiance was to make a wine from grapes that vary in gloriously uncertain ways due to the sensitivity of the plants to weather as they cling to life at 6800 feet”
Fellow growers from the Western Slope will attest to that statement, as they have suffered many restless nights at the mercy of mother nature.
If you are a native Coloradan, you have experienced the unpredictable weather. Many of you have skied the slopes well into March/April and witnessed snowfall as late as May/June. Snow at bud-break may be a beautiful sight, but it can be detrimental for vintners. Depending on the level of maturity of the buds, adverse weather can do some serious damage to primary and secondary buds. No buds? No crop. And sadly, no wine for us wine enthusiasts.
But not to worry! There are still some nutty growers in the region who will continue battling the elements to produce some delicious and quality wines for y’all to enjoy.