Wines That Move Mountains
Learning what ancient winemakers knew about hillside vineyards
— 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.
A completely different sight greeted me during my first visit to Europe.
Driving through the Italian Alps I nearly got a neck injury 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 trouble 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.
God of Wine
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 and exceptional wines.
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.
High elevation vines
Every now and then wine magazines will run features on high-elevation and hillside-grown fruit here in Napa Valley, focusing 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.
Thin soils, rich flavors
My own experience with hillside fruit comes, of course, from working with vines from Shafer’s Hillside Estate Vineyards, whose rows wrap around the winery.
In this case, as with most hillsides, the vines benefit 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 as a screen saver. They tend to be loose and scraggly-looking.
Beast into beauty
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.
In our case, we have tried to capitalize on the qualities inherent in hillsides by dividing up the vineyard into 14 different blocks, each of them facing in different directions — south, southwest and west — planting them to a variety of rootstocks and clones of Cabernet Sauvignon. Each year we pick these blocks and select the best fruit of the vintage for Hillside Select.
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.