Altitude and Italian Wine – Can You Taste the Height Difference?

There are all sorts of interesting myths and ideas about the effect that altitude can have on the Italian wines you drink. And even more interestingly, we can split these theories into two areas:

  1. The effect that growing grapes at high altitudes has on the wine that’s eventually produced.
  2. The effect that being at a high altitude yourself, such as being in a plane, has on the taste of the wine you drink.

The point is that height seems to matter, in more ways than one. But we want to figure out just how much of an effect altitude has on the way we experience wine. That’s why we’re going to look at both sides of the coin in this article, starting with…

Does Being At a Higher Altitude Affect How You Taste Your Wine?

You’re on a plane, scaling a peak, or just high up in the air, for whatever reason. You pour yourself a glass of wine and take your first sip. And to your surprise, it seems like the overall effect the wine’s having on you is a little different to what you’d expect based on when you drink at ground level.

What gives?

Is this all real? Or has the elevation created a strange altered perception that makes you think something different is going on when it really isn’t?

The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Let’s start with the most common effect that people report when drinking at high altitudes – their wine gets them drunk quicker. This seems to show us that a wine’s potency will increase the higher up it goes. However, that isn’t the case. Regardless of the elevation, the wine’s alcohol content will remain the same. What changes is the oxygen levels in your body. As you ascend to higher altitudes, oxygen tends to become thinner. This can result in altitude sickness, which in its early stages manifests many of the same symptoms that being drunk creates. You begin to feel dizzy and light-headed. And this, combine with the alcohol you’re drinking, leads you to feel like you’re in a drunk state faster.

But you’re likely not drunk.

Instead, you’re more likely oxygen-deprived, which is far more dangerous!

Interestingly, this lack of oxygen has other effects on the wine. For example, plans have reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels than your front room. The issue here is that these lower concentrations of oxygen can lead to a wine’s aroma dissipating quickly, leaving you with an overabundance of tannins and acidity. In many cases, this can actually make the wine taste worse than it should, which is why airlines tend to serve fruity wines. The impact of the environment lessens with these wines, making the difference less notable.

One other key difference between drinking at altitude and drinking at ground level is the issue of dryness. With lower oxygen levels comes faster dehydration. As such, when drinking at a height, make sure you also consume plenty of water. And by the way, this dehydration combines with the previously mentioned issues to enhance that feeling of faster drunkenness that you might experience.

So, drinking wine at high altitudes certainly changes the experience. There are effects on way your wine tastes. Plus, there are issues with your own body that you need to take into account.

Now, let’s look at the other aspect of altitude that you might need to consider.

Do Grapes Grown at High Altitudes Have Different Qualities?

The simple answer is that they do. And we can boil this down to three key differences that occur when a wine is grown at a higher elevation:

  1. Greater exposure to more direct sunlight.
  2. Better drainage as a result of the high elevation.
  3. More dramatic shifts in temperature.

These three challenges combine to create grapes that have very distinct qualities.

In the case of exposure to sunlight, the effect is much the same as if you expose your skin to direct sunlight. The grape’s essentially “tan”, which in this case means that they develop much deeper pigmentation than you would expect from the grape. The grape’s skin also becomes much tougher, which leads to even more vivid colouring and stronger tannins.

In the case of drainage, we see a challenge of nutrition. Like all plants, grape vines require water to thrive. The more moisture there is in the soil, the greater the yield. Of course, water flows downwards, which means the soil at high elevations is generally far less nutritious to a grape vine that the soil at lower elevations.

The result?

Only the strongest of grapes survive!

Yields are much lower in vines grown at altitude and only the strongest and most resourceful grapes survive the process. Those that do tend to have a much bolder character and higher quality simply because they fought the hardest for the limited resources available to the vine.

And finally, we have the changes in climate. We’ve spoken before about how climate change presents a major challenge to winemakers as unexpected temperature differences can completely alter the way a grape grows. At higher altitudes, the warmer temperatures created by more direct sunlight give way to the freezing cold that occurs when the sun goes down. The result is that grapes mature more slowly as they have a stop-start sugar production routine in place. Again, the result is that the wines produced tend to be more flavourful.

So, we see that heightened altitude leads to key differences in the way that grapes grow. And the fact that only the strongest survive has a direct impact on the quality of the wine. Lower yields lead to more selective use of grapes, which results in wines that are more representative of their terroir in addition to offering qualities that other wines simply can’t. This is why “grown at high elevation” is now a marketing term that denotes a wine as being of a different quality to its competitors.

Whichever way you look at it, elevation impacts on your Italian wine experience. We’d certainly encourage you to sample some Italian wines made using grapes grown at elevated heights. But we’d advise against drinking at high altitudes simply because the changes in air pressure and oxygen levels tend to negatively impact the wine’s taste.



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