This is part of a series called Wine Words, a glossary in the works that breaks down the barrier between those in the wine know and those who have no idea what the hell everyone's talking about. A new word posts once a week, covering everything from a grape name or region, to a winemaking or tasting term.
Elevation (n.) Vineyard Term
Of course you know what elevation means. As in, the act of elevating your swollen feet or the angle of the gun you're carefully holding, and for the skiers, the elevation at which you broke your leg on that black diamond slope (nice job, hot shot). I often mention vineyard elevation when writing about a wine. Last week I wrote about the Escaravailles CdR Les Sablières 2013 and mentioned the estate's vineyards are approximately 600 feet above sea level. In early December I wrote about a very small production Greek white, Domaine Douloufakis Vidiano 2014, whose vineyards sit at 1,800 feet above sea level. Perhaps you're thinking, Okay, that's nice, but WTF does that have to do with wine? Why should I care?
You should care about it because elevation is one of the many factors that attributes to a wine's terroir. What's terroir? Another post on another day. In the meantime, let's break it down to one aspect: elevation. The greatest effect of elevation is the change in temperature. The temp drops about 1 degree Fahrenheit every 330 feet above sea level. Cooler temperatures mean slower ripening grapes. As grapes ripen, they gain sugar; as the sugar levels rise, the acidity levels drop. Grapes allowed to ripen over a longer, cooler growing season than one that's fully ripened in hotter temperatures, will produce more balanced wines with more finesse. Balance is everything. In contrast, grapes ripened on the sun drenched valley floors of California will produce high alcohol wines with low acidity, hot and flabby. No thank you.
Higher elevation vineyards are likely to experience more cloud cover and more rain, and the terrain is more likely to be rocky and stoney, which makes the vines work harder and produce better quality grapes. Grapevines don't love super fertile soil. They're stubborn overachievers, gonna do it their way even when it's the hard way.
In short, vineyard elevation is one of the elements that affects wine quality.