Seeking new heights

We just have to look to the soaring vineyards of Argentina to know that viticulture is literally on the rise. Many of the country’s vines are grown at dizzying heights, from 1000m and above to even as high as 3300m. It’s neighbour Chile also has high-flung pockets, in the Elqui Valley for example producers are even experimenting with aromatic varieties such as riesling.

There’s no doubt that as the world warms we will begin to look skyward: it’ll be something of a gold rush to claim the cooler, higher sites as climatic doom starts to descend. Climate change is without a doubt the most burning issue facing viticulture, though extreme vineyards are not just an escape route – it’s also a question of style. Can there be more site-expressive wines than grapes grown almost touching the heavens?

When planted at height these vineyards are firmly continental in climate as opposed to those with ocean views moderated by the big blue. Grapes in alpine vineyards ripen later, concentrating flavour compounds. They also experience high diurnal swings (hot days, cold nights) that magic acidity retainer, plus the grapes receive more solar radiation than their grounded counterparts, ramping up phenols and anthocyanin, thickening skins and deepening colour.  

Celebrated winemaker Charles Hopkins is no stranger to aiming high. Cellar master at De Grendel owned by the Graaff family he works with a variety of other sites too. Recently released the Op die Berg Syrah 2019 is the third addition to De Grendel’s Op die Berg range, which also incorporates a pinot and chardonnay.

The grapes are mountain-grown 1000 metres above sea level in the Witzenberg’s Ceres Plateau on a farm called Rietfontein, which is owned by Robert Graaff, brother of De Grendel’s late owner Sir De Villiers Graaff.

In the winter snow blankets the landscape, locking the vines into restful, icy dormancy. The Op die Berg Syrah 2019 almost tastes of cold: limpid and woven through with white peppery spice, sour cherries and cranberries. There’s a crystallising effect on the palate as the acidity shapes and facets its liminal purity. There’s just a hint of mushroomy decay, something wicked in its snowy innocence. It’s a wine to ruby the blood.

There are more lofty sites to come for Hopkins, with planting programmes headed by viticulturist Stephan Joubert being planned for isolated, mountainous sites in the Hex River and Koo valleys. Along with the prerequisite chardonnay and pinot noir, pinotage is said to be on the cards too.