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A Winemaker's Journal


By Elias Fernandez

Growing up in Napa Valley, I was long accustomed to seeing vineyards that spread across the valley floor like a gently undulating sea of vines.

During my first visit to Europe, I drove through the Italian Alps and nearly got a neck cramp craning to get a look at vineyards that seemed to defy gravity. They rose up stair-stepped terraces on slopes like church steeples. Initially I wondered why anyone would go to all the work to plant grapes on such inhospitable sites. Over time though I realized I was getting a look at real wisdom from grape growers of the distant past.

In some cases such vineyards fall in the footprint of ancient vine-growing properties thanks to a long-standing reverence for mountain-side cultivation.

The Romans had a saying, “Bacchus amat colles,” Latin for, Bacchus loves the hills. The ancient god of wine seemed to pour special blessings on grapes cultivated on slopes. Armed with this knowledge the Romans planted their vineyards throughout Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Austria – and all the other territories they conquered – on slopes still renown today for producing beautiful fruit.

In California we still have some catching up to do with our Roman predecessors in terms of understanding how grapes and vineyard sites match up. A much-heralded wine magazine recently ran a feature on high-elevation and hillside-grown fruit here in Napa Valley and there was some discussion on whether such cultivation makes a difference.

(Of course high elevation is somewhat relative. For those of us in California high elevation is anything over 1,500 feet. In South America a couple of vintners are vying for the title of highest elevation vineyard in the world on sites over 9,000 feet. Other than inducing altitude sickness in your picking crew, I’m not clear on the advantages of such plantings.)

In my own experience hillside fruit benefits a great deal from a mix of natural elements. First, thanks to runoff over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, hillsides offer shallow soils often starkly low in nutrients for plants, meaning that a vine’s tap root must drive down deep, sometimes all the way to bedrock, to find its sustenance.

Second, a good hillside site will offer fast drainage, meaning that even when unexpected rains come, the vine roots are quickly left in relatively dry soil.

This lack of nutrients and water stunts the growth of the vine. Leaves are fewer and smaller and so are the grapes. A hillside cluster is rarely the photogenic rich, full, packed cluster that looks so nice on a poster. They tend to be loose and scraggly-looking.

What does all this mean for your next bottle of wine made from hillside-grown fruit? These ugly-duckling clusters with small berries can transform into liquid beauty when crushed. Fruit from Bacchus’ beloved hills can exhibit intense, lush flavor and because the skins are thicker (thanks to less solar protection from leaves) the color can be deep and inky.

For a real treat, invite some friends over and open several wines from great hillsides around the world. Think of it as mountain climbing in a glass.