Priorat, the wine-growing region in Catalonia, Spain, is already a place of extremes. Vineyards are steep and craggy and climb high into the mountains, often reaching gradients of 50%. So when Miguel Torres Maczassek, the head of Familia Torres, started buying almost inhospitable land at the very top of Priorat—the highest slate-soil vineyard in the region—makers in the region thought he was crazy. No one in Priorat plants about 1,800 feet. Grapes won’t ripen that high. He was purchasing plots 2,400 feet into the sky.
Harvesting grapes at Familia Torres’ El Tossals vineyard is more like a hillside scramble than a vineyard walk. Even getting to the vineyard calls for a 15-minute drive up switch-back dirt roads, if you can call them roads at all.
So why is the winery looking at these isolated plots? “In Spain, we have to work fast and work smart to mitigate the effects of climate change,” says Maczassek. With shifting climates, lower-elevation vineyards are budding sooner. He hopes that as temperatures continue to rise, these high-reaching vineyards will warm to their potential.
Finding Higher Ground
Across the world, winemakers are starting to feel the burn as average land temperatures rise and hot extremes become glaring and more regular. Producers in Piedmont, the Dolomites, Argentina and California are chasing cool temperatures higher into the hills.
“In the last few years, climate change has led to an anticipation of the phenological phases—the ripening time between veraison and harvest has shortened,” says Andrea Buccella, the production manager of Cesarini Sforza in Trento. “It’s impacting our harvest timing.”
Historically speaking, sparkling winemakers prefer the warm days and crisp nights of loftier plots, the kind of climate offered in the shadow of the Dolomites. It promotes acidity, “a crucial factor in the production of our Trentodoc sparkling,” explains Bucella. “[That climate] allows us to produce wines with freshness, elegance and longevity.”
He’s noticed a shift in temperature, so to protect acidity, the winery is investing in plots up to 2,000 feet above sea level in Val di Cembra. “The valley benefits from a regular wind and noticeable diurnal range—we can preserve acidity and freshness.”
In the Barolo and Barbaresco DOCGs, climate change doesn’t just mean warmer temperatures. It also extends to a lack of humidity and water supply in the soil, lack of intense rains in autumn and spring and less snow in winter. “All of these are important for Nebbiolo,” says Federica Boffa, the proprietor of Pio Cesare.
“It’s higher in elevation, much colder in the winter and mild during the summer, with more wind and humidity,” says Boffa. For that reason, Alta Langa is almost entirely populated by sparkling winemakers, “but my father was determined to plant Nebbiolo instead. “He wanted to experiment with the grape planted at a higher altitude—to see if Barolo and Barbaresco could fight against climate change and thrive in high-altitude vineyards, ones already very close to their home regions and appellations.”
The first official harvest is this year. “We are very curious to see how the grapes will perform, if they have acidity, body, structure, tannins and elegance,” she continues. “If we succeed, we will continue planting Nebbiolo and Chardonnay.”
For now, the wine is simply a Langhe Nebbiolo—rules bar the Barolo nametag—“but who knows what the future will hold,” says Boffa. “We will be well-trained and prepared.”
The Limits of High Elevation
Unfortunately, moving higher isn’t a band-aid solution to a climate in crisis.
Naumann cultivates plots considered high in elevation in the region—2,100 feet—but the Caldor fire, one of the largest wildfires in the history of California, still came within five miles of his vineyard. “Then in 2022, we had a significant frost event—yield was way down.”
In Santa Barbara County, higher elevation isn’t a solution to climate change at all. “The key for future vineyard viability and wine quality is a maritime influence and not elevation,” argues Peter Stolpman of Stolpman Vineyards. “Elevation here actually makes vineyards hotter—the maritime fog burns off more quickly at the higher elevations as it recedes down the valleys and back West to the Pacific.”
“You can’t just say, ‘Let’s go higher—we’ll make better wines as a result,’” says Naumann. “There are so many variables to higher elevations.” That said, he contends that if one successfully navigates those variables, “wines from these strange high areas can be some of the greatest wines made in the world…if you’re willing to forgo the risk, the rewards can be incredible.”
Adjusting to a New Reality
In Argentina, Bodegas Caro’s Philippe Rolet sees two paths forward: “Change your varietals to ones more suited for aggressive or warmer climates, or look to vineyards higher in the mountains.” Neither is fail-safe. If you move higher, you risk frost. “The other major risk is water availability,” he continues. “Most of the vineyards are irrigated in Argentina. If you go higher, you either need to drill a well, which is expensive, or find a spring, which is difficult.”
He’s actively looking for properties at higher sites. “We are already suffering from climate change—we had two frosts in Mendoza this year,” he says. “I’ve never seen two frosts in the same vintage…We need to make the move while lands are available.”
Outside of elevation, Familia Torres is future-proofing their production by investing in new varieties: more resilient ones better suited not only to elevation, but also drastic weather changes. Many of the grapes Maczassek is testing are lesser-known indigenous varieties, like Forcada, Querol and Moneu. All were found via the producer’s ancestral grape program—an ambitious endeavor that involves combing through abandoned bush vines in farmers’ fields to find almost-lost varieties. The hope is that these grapes are more heat- and drought-tolerant—qualities of more climate-resistant varieties.
In Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains, Lois and Dave Cho founded Cho Wines in 2020. Before buying their own growing plots, the duo sourced grapes from around the valley to see how fruit fared at different elevations. By the end of their first year, they were convinced that high-elevation plots were the right move.
“We wanted to find a property in high elevation with good acid retention,” says Lois. “More importantly, they’re sites we know we could farm for the next 20 to 30 years.”
“There’s a huge shift in temperature where our vines were planted, compared to 30 to 40 years ago,” she continues. “Everyone here is seeing it.”
The Chos are making the Willamette jazz standards of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but also experimenting with Pinot Grigio (“I made a pet-nat last year when yields were low,” says Dave), Blaufränkisch, Gamay Noir, Syrah, Aligote and Riesling—all grapes more suited to their higher, more alpine plane. They’ll outsource most of these, but the Chos are also planting test blocks, starting with an acre of Syrah, to see how the new guard of grapes fare as temperatures shift.
These initiatives are certainly spurred by current necessity—ways for established wineries to prepare for unprecedented change. But for younger winemakers like Dave and Lois Cho, this uncertainty is here to stay.
Last year, an early frost hit just before the Oregon harvest. At the time, the couple was still sourcing grapes. “It was slim pickings,” Lois says. “So we had to get creative. We co-fermented with apples to stretch the grapes we were able to get.”
“We recognize climate change is the new norm for us,” she continues. “It’s where the industry is going, so all we can do is adapt and survive.”
Last Updated: May 31, 2023