Wines from the Sky

Many of the world’s best vineyards lie along the slopes of mountain chains and their foothills.  From Germany’s Rhine and Mosel Valleys to Italy’s Alps and Apennines to the Mayacamas Mountains separating Napa Valley from Sonoma, to Oregon’s and Washington’s opposite sides of the Cascades, the drainage provided by sloping ground tends to yield smaller, more intensely-flavored grapes.  In the wine world, wines with more flavor are often worth more than those with less.  Some call this less but better.
One of the most dramatic examples is South America’s Andes Mountain range between Chile and Argentina.  On a map the two countries’ wine regions appear to be pretty close to each other.  Wine-wise, they’re very different.
On the Argentina side, around the city of Mendoza, vineyards are literally in a desert.  There’s rarely a problem with rain during the pollination or harvest seasons here, though hail can be an occasional downside.  The dry conditions mean few problems with mold or mildew.  There aren’t even many insects, which means also that there aren’t many birds to eat the grapes (a significant problem in Germany, for instance).
Argentine vineyards are irrigated from a 500 year-old system of canals that channel ice melt down from Andean glaciers. In Mendoza, the largest city, streets are lined with these “ditches”, watering trees and making it one of the leafiest cities I’ve seen.
Chile’s wine regions, on the other hand, are very similar to those along California’s Central Coast.  Here, from the capital city Santiago to the south about 150 miles, dry summers tend to be followed by wetter winters that have created a ladder-like series of quickly rising and falling rivers traversing the central valley between the Andes and the Pacific.  It’s a much milder climate than their neighbors across the mountains have.
Recent years have seen the planting of vineyards at ever-higher altitudes, taking advantage of shorter, cooler growing seasons that tend to produce smaller, more flavorful grapes.
One wine I like a lot is from high in the Andes on the Chilean side, below the chain’s highest peak, Aconcagua.  The river from the mountaintop glacier provides irrigation for the organically farmed vineyards, and the cool mountain climate means small, intensely flavored grapes.  It’s called El Conde Gran Riserva Cabernet Sauvignon, and it retails for $16-$17 per bottle.

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