Are all those picturesque hillside vineyards just for looks or is there a reason behind their location?
Today we're back with another installment of our new Ask The Expert series! The question on the table this time is "Why Are Vineyards Often Found On The Slopes of Hills and Mountains?"
Take for example, this vineyard in Hermitage in the Rhone Valley:
It looks good for sure, but to help us dig a little deeper we've enlisted Matias Cruzat of Vina San Pedro, winemaker for the 1865 single varietal wines. Read on for his answer to this question.
Great question and not an easy answer either. The short answer is cultural history, while the longer answer goes more along these three main points from my perspective. Do keep in mind that with wine, as well as life, there is almost always, if not always, an exception to every generalization.
Firstly, vines were planted where people were lived, and if the land happened to be hilly and mountainous area, that was where they planted — since that was what was available. Great examples of this are in the Mosel, Porto and Piedmont. It was only years later that we discovered that this one factor, the slope of the hill, could influence a better quality wine, as it can provide a more ideal environment for heat, sunlight, water and nutrients that the vine needs to flourish.
The next factor that comes into play is Burgundy. Here, you have vines planted both on flat as well as hilly areas. Over time, a classification occurred to show quality (Bourgogne Blanc/Red, Village, Premier and Grand Cru) and people noticed that the best wines, the Grand Crus, were planted on hills. Needless to say, this experience caused us to wonder if planting on hills provided a higher quality wine.
Today, we now have more scientific data to support that planting on hills or mountains can provide a higher quality wine as there might be improved drainage, sun exposure, heat, soils as well as protection against frost. However, it is extremely important to note that planting on a hillside does not necessarily equate to a higher quality wine.
For example, Bordeaux is known for having some of the highest quality wines in the world and the majority of these vineyards are planted on flat land. As a consequence, it is important to remember that the quality of a wine is a combination of the climate, soil, grape variety as well as the people making the wine that can make the difference in quality.
As for me, when I see a hill or mountainous terrain, it still makes me think twice about planting, and whether there is enough evidence to show that it can produce a higher quality wine. With my own wines, I've found that our 1865 Cabernet Sauvignon from Maipo Valley is planted on a flat area, very similar to Bordeaux and it is providing me with an excellent quality fruit as the combination of soil, climate and people provide a perfect mix. Similarly, our 1865 Pinot Noir from Elqui Valley is planted on mostly flat ground although is more influenced by the wind, elevation and ocean to provide the correct environment for excellent quality grapes.
To tie it all together: it comes down to culture first, then history and science. But remember, if you see a hill, think twice as it is all about the mix.
Thanks again to Matias Cruzat of Vina San Pedro for answering the question "Why Are Vineyards Often Found On The Slopes of Hills and Mountains?"