Discover Altitude | 1,475 Feet In the Air
Nestled amidst the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, a small vineyard thrives at a stunning 9,000ft above the sea. It’s a testament to the limitless possibilities of high-altitude viticulture. Priorat, Spain and Mendoza, Argentina are well-known for producing quality wines grown up to 5,000ft. At the same time, the low-lying Médoc region in France is equally celebrated for producing some of the finest wines in the world. Meanwhile, the Grand Crus of Burgundy flourish on mid-slopes between 755 and 1,300 feet. Clearly, when it comes to altitude – it’s all relative.
How Does Altitude Affect Wine?
In the context of wine growing, altitude (also referred to as elevation) refers to the height of the vineyard above sea level. Small differences in elevation can have surprisingly big effects on wine quality and, indeed, on the ability of individual grape varieties to ripen at all. Typically, grapes grown at lower elevations may experience more moderate temperatures, greater humidity, and richer soils, resulting in wines with softer tannins, lower acidity, and more fruit-forward flavors. In low-lying regions like the Médoc in France, the wines are known for their intense fruit flavors and soft tannins. These wines are typically full-bodied and can be enjoyed young or aged, depending on the producer and the vintage.
As the vines ascend to higher altitudes, they encounter cooler temperatures. Cooler temperatures at higher elevations can slow the ripening process and promote the development of nuanced and complex flavors. At a higher elevation, there is also increased ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which stimulates the production of phenolic compounds that contribute to the wine’s structure and depth. In addition, higher elevations tend to be drier and windier than lower elevations. This can be beneficial for vineyards because it can help to reduce the risk of disease by keeping the vines dry and preventing the growth of mold and mildew. This combination of factors can lead to more concentrated flavors, higher acidity, and more tannins in the grapes, resulting in wines with greater complexity, structure, and aging potential.
The Allure of Atlas Peak
Atlas Peak has been producing renowned wine since 1870. Located in the Vaca Mountains east of Napa Valley, the elevation of Atlas Peak ranges from 1,400 to 2,600 feet above sea level. This is relatively high for the Napa region, meaning the mountain appellation sits above the morning fog layer – a prime spot for bold red wine varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. Atlas Peak vineyards are generally planted on steep slopes, which allows for good drainage and ensures that the vines receive plenty of sunlight. In fact, when founder Don Dady first arrived to inspect the now-current site of Seven Apart, he was in awe of the steep slopes around him:
“Good wine starts with good fruit. That’s why I was on the lookout for the perfect vineyard. When I came upon Stags Ridge Vineyard, what caught my attention was: you get mountain fruit. You’re on the tip-top of Atlas Peak, which is the back of Mayacamas – the highest mountain range in Napa. It’s a unique spot,” shares Don.
Atlas Peak’s elevation adds a distinct flavor profile to mountain fruit. At 1600 feet, UV exposure increases by almost 5%, and every vineyard above the fog layer at 1500 feet experiences greater exposure. These conditions enhance polyphenol development (i.e., wine’s flavor compounds), leading to richer color and texture in the wine, with more pronounced tannins. The steep slopes also mean that the majority of the fruit needs to be hand-harvested – a marker of quality.
Of course, as a compliment to Stags Ridge Vineyard is Base Camp – a thriving valley floor vineyard situated where Silverado Trail meets Soda Canyon Road. Following Seven Apart’s acquisition in 2018, Base Camp was replanted, presenting a unique opportunity for Don and his winemaking team. “Base Camp offers low-elevation fruit and Stags Ridge mountain fruit, giving us the best of both worlds,” Don explains.
Base Camp & Stags Ridge Vineyard
To understand the impact of elevation on Seven Apart winemaking, let’s take a closer look at our two vineyards, Base Camp and Stags Ridge Vineyard. At almost 8 acres, Base Camp has recently been replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a bit of Sauvignon Blanc. The elevation ranges between 55 and 75 feet above sea level. This means the vineyard is planted on mostly flat land, ensuring the grapes receive a lot of direct sunlight. The temperatures here can be quite warm, making the grapes ripen quickly.
“Base Camp is our home base. It’s where every adventure begins. The vineyard is also in the process of going organic, meaning the quality of the fruit will increase even further in the coming years,” explains Seven Apart Managing Director Yannick Girardo.
As it turns out, hedging our bets between mountain and valley-floor fruit has also been a saving grace. In the 2020 Glass Fire, the Stags Ridge vineyard fruit was rendered unusable due to smoke taint. The fruit from Base Camp came to rescue the vintage. “If it weren’t for our Base Camp fruit, we would not have been able to release the Seven Apart Expedition 2020.”
The truth is mountain fruit is high risk – but also high reward. At Stags Ridge Vineyard, the vines are planted on steep slopes, which allows for good drainage, plenty of sunlight, and thinner air making the vines less susceptible to pests and diseases. The higher altitude and cooler temperatures mean the grapes ripen slower than they do at Base Camp, allowing them to develop more complex flavors and aromas. The cooler temperatures also help retain the grapes’ acidity, which is important for balance in the finished wine. For all these reasons, this is why we produce three distinct Cabernet Sauvignons from the Stags Ridge vineyard – Seven Apart Shale, Seven Apart Basalt, and Seven Apart Summit.
“While it may seem odd to craft three Cabernet Sauvignons from the same vineyard, there’s so much incredible diversity up there. You might have one section that gives you one unique element and another that gives you something completely different. It’s what makes this mountain fruit so exciting to work with,” ends Yannick.
If you ask us, there’s no doubt that altitude plays a significant role in the grape quality and wine character. But when done right, you can elevate the wine to new heights.