In spring 2017, temperatures dropped to minus five in Morgex et La Salle in the Aosta Valley in northwest Italy. For three nights running, they persisted.
As a result, Cave Mont Blanc lost an entire year’s grape harvest. New vines of Roussin de Morgex, a native red grape that winemaker Nicola del Negro is experimenting with and which had been planted the year prior were killed, and while the vines of prié blanc, the vineyard’s mainstay, survived, there would be no grapes for a 2017 vintage.
These are the perils of making wine at the limits, yet many are taking such risks. And there are rewards to be reaped.
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Cave Mont Blanc is nestled in the foothills of Mont Blanc, and is among the highest vineyards in Europe with vines planted between 1,000 and 1,200 metres above sea level. At these lofty heights, the indigenous prié blanc grape thrives, giving way to sparkling and white wines with searing acidity, dry minerality and fresh, crisp fruit flavours.
Vines have long been grown at altitude, often to offset hot climates, but they are increasingly going higher. Some of the loftiest vineyards in the world lie in Argentina, at heights greater than 3,000 metres above sea level, though the title of highest vineyard according to the Guinness Book of World Records is, in fact, the Pure Land & Super-High Altitude Vineyard, situated at 3,563m in Tibet, China.
Winemaking in China is no longer new, but winemakers are looking to fresh pastures. Moët Hennessy has made a foray into winemaking with Ao Yun, located in the foothills of the Himalayas, not far from Shangri-La in Yunnan Province, with vineyards ranging in altitude from 2,200 to 2,600 metres.
“We chose our place because the terroir shows the best potential in China to give birth to fine and unique, great wine,” says Maxence Dulou, estate manager at Ao Yun. “It took us four years to identify the place. The remote location makes logistics complex and expensive, and the cultural and language diversity are sometimes challenging.” The steep slopes at Ao Yun also mean that harvest and winemaking are done by hand. But the climate has been likened to that of Bordeaux and the vineyard’s second vintage, the 2014 Ao Yun, has already met with acclaim. Master of Wine Jeannie Cho Lee wrote that finally there is “a Chinese wine that expresses its unique origins and is distinctly different from other high-quality cabernet sauvignon blends in the world” before lamenting the limited quantities—only 2,000 cases are released internationally.