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Vincent Ciolino
November 15, 2013 | Quality, Quality, Vineyard, Vineyard | Vincent Ciolino

The Beauty of Mountain Wines: soil, slope, and elevation are the secrets

Advertisements by Folgers and Columbian coffee (with "Juan Valdez") have trained us that mountain-grown coffee is the most flavorful and robust coffee in the world. But did you know that mountain-grown grapes have similar advantages? Grapevines grown on steep slopes and at altitude are stressed by low-nutrient soils and have long growing seasons thus produce long-lived wines with an intense, distinctive character. Here at Montemaggiore, we believe so deeply in the quality of mountain-grown grapes that it's in our name: "monte" means mountain in Italian, thus Montemaggiore means "great mountain" (Montemaggiore is also the name of the town of in Italy from which Vincent's family hails).

When you look around the world, the best vineyards are in mountainous areas. In Germany, there is the Mosel and Rheingau; in France, the Rhône and Cote d'Or (Burgundy); in Italy, the Alto Adige, Piedmont and Tuscany; in Portugal, the Duoro; in Argentina, Mendoza. Bordeaux might be the exception that proves the rule, being at low altitude with fairly flat terrain. All other great wine regions of the world are on steep slopes, and typically at high altitude. In fact in many regions (e.g., Burgundy), the altitude of the vineyard correlates with wine price—the higher up on the slope, the higher the price of the wine—because the better drainage and lower yields in the higher slopes produce higher quality wines.

Three factors make mountain-grown grapes so special: soil, slope, and altitude. Mountain-based soils have fewer nutrients thus cause the vines struggle, the slopes are steep thus have great drainage, and the altitude is higher thus the climate more moderate. Mountainside grapevines produce smaller individual berries, which create wines with firm structure, incredible varietal intensity, and excellent aging potential. Since most wine flavor comes from the skins of the grapes and the volume of juice is determined by the size of the berry, the most intense wines from smaller grapes (Math geek alert: the surface area-to-volume ratio of a sphere is optimized at a small diameter). Mountainside grapes have a high skin-to-juice ratio and the resulting intense skin phenolics (flavors) impart a firm structure and rich complexity on the wine.

Soils on mountainsides are poor in nutrients, which translates into fewer bunches on each vine, bunches with fewer berries, and smaller individual berries. Mountain vineyards have little topsoil because it has been washed downhill by the rain over the millennia. The soils at Montemaggiore are very poor and rocky, thus the vines fight for their lives. We put biodynamic compost on them every year just to keep them from stressing too much. Our cabernet grapes are so small and dark, Vincent often says they look like caviar after they are harvested and destemmed!

The steep slopes found on mountainsides also contribute to stressing the vines. Good drainage means that water is not retained well in the soil, thus can't swell up the berries. On the valley floor, we sometimes see grapes twice the size of ours, and bunches that are three times the weight. Our overall yields average 2 tons of grapes per acre, whereas on the valley floor an acre of vines might produce 4, 8, or even more tons per acre.

Vineyards at altitude experience a more moderate climate with a long, slow ripening period. Temperatures are cooler during the heat of the day, and warmer at night which slows the ripening and lengthens the growing period. While vineyards on the floor of Dry Creek Valley are often blanketed in fog in the morning, those at Montemaggiore are above the fog, enjoying the sunshine. Our vines "wake up" earlier in the morning to start photosynthesizing, and often "go to sleep" later in the evening which gives them the same amount of solar energy but over a longer period. Our grapes benefit from a longer hang time on the vine, which helps the accumulation of the vital chemical compounds (acids, flavor, color) that define our wines' profile. Seasonally, cooler spring temperatures cause buds to break later than average, and warm summer nights produce fruit that demonstrates a great balance between acidity and sugar. This slowed-down maturation cycle allows the grapes to ripen in tune with the tannins, and yet retain naturally balanced acidity.

While mountainsides produce great wines, they also present many challenges, making the grapes much more expensive to grow. For example, establishing vines in the lean, nutrient-poor soils is difficult. While vines newly planted in deep topsoil take three or four years to produce a decent crop, at Montemaggiore our newly-planted areas have taken five years to produce just because our vines struggle so much. Once the vines are established, the wine grower's challenge is to fine-tune the degree of nurturing so that the vines are stressed but not overstressed. This requires a lot of attention to detail, eliminating the possibility of mass production and corporate-style winemaking.

Water availability is also often an issue for mountain vineyards since most year-long water sources are found down in river valleys or above aquifers. Here at Montemaggiore, we must capture the winter rainwater in our mountainside ponds, and use that water to irrigate the vines during the dry summer. If the spring is exceptionally dry and we start irrigating earlier than usual, we must limit our water usage so that it lasts the entire summer season. Our life would be much easier, however, if we lived near the river so we could just pump water on demand.

Preventing erosion is another constant concern for mountain vineyards—what little topsoil we have, we want to preserve. Most vineyards are tilled in order to aerate the soil, work in organic material, and reduce competition from other plants. At Montemaggiore don't till because we don't want to encourage erosion thus we must utilize other methods like sheep, which add organic material and eat the grasses to reduce competition. We don't want to haul the topsoil from the bottom of the hill to the top several times a year!

Lastly, working in a vineyard on a steep slope requires risk. While we have never had a major accident at Montemaggiore, this year during harvest we had to change a flat tire on a trailer weighed down by a ton of grapes which was positioned on a steep rocky slope—definitely not fun! Due to our steep slopes, we do a lot of work by hand which other vineyards would mechanize. Even accessing some of our vines for pruning and harvesting by hand is treacherous. But the wine quality makes it all worthwhile.

More than twelve years ago, when we were looking for the perfect spot to establish our wine business, we knew we wanted an estate vineyard in the mountains—it matched both our personal character and the style of wine we wanted to make. And while this mountainside has presented its challenges, we've never wanted to be flatlanders. We hope you also appreciate our mountain-grown grapes and how that translates into great structure, complexity and intensity in your wine glass.


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