July 8, 2015 by Joe Kukura

When you think of the wine from northern California’s famed wine country, you might think of winegrapes grown in Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley. You might not think of winegrapes grown atop mountains. But an emerging and trendy class of wines is being grown on mountains in California wine country’s Lake County, a region with unique geographic qualities. These mountains secure Lake County as its own wine country microclimate with higher altitudes, sunnier conditions and the cleanest air in the United States.

High-altitude wines being produced by vintners in Lake County describe these unique winegrape growing conditions with the catchphrase “higher, dryer, shorter and colder”. Mountain viticulture differs greatly from valley viticulture in terms of geology, climate and temperature. Many wine connoisseurs will tell you these high-altitude differences produce superior winegrapes.

“All of those components are absorbed by the skin,” said Peter Molnar, chairman of the Lake County Winegrape Commission, in an interview on growing high-altitude winegrapes.”I love mountain fruit, because it has that kind of a wild, spicy character to it that’s indicative of where it’s from.”

Higher Altitude

Only about three percent of the wine grapes grown in California are grown at altitudes above 1,000 feet. Lake County is where you’ll find this exceptional three percent.

Many of Lake County’s 170-plus vineyards are higher-elevation environments, located around the intersection of the Mayacamas Mountains and the Vaca Mountains of the California Coast Ranges. Many of the higher-altitude vineyards are in the 1,500- to 3,000-foot range. This altitude is responsible for a lack of humidity, exceptionally warm days paired with exceptionally cool nights and an overall shorter growing season.

Dryer Conditions With Less Fog or Clouds

The dryer, more rugged high-altitude vineyards of Lake County still yield perfectly ripe grapes, thanks to increased levels of ultraviolet sunlight. The grapes get more direct sunlight and spend fewer daytime hours covered by clouds or fog.

Growers estimate that each 1,000-foot increase in elevation produces about a three percent increase in ultraviolet light. Lake County’s higher-elevation wine grapes at 1,500 to 3,000-foot elevations get about 10 percent more ultraviolet light. This causes the grapes to grow thicker skins — both literally and figuratively.

“That thicker skin is where all the good stuff that we like in red wines and all wines comes from,” Molnar said. “All the phenolics, all the anthocyanins, a lot of the flavor.”

Shorter Growing Season

You might not think of a shorter growing season as an advantage, but in many ways it is. Shorter growing seasons at higher altitudes greatly reduce the threat of pests and the need for chemical herbicides in the viticulture process.

The later start to the growing season leads to less extemporaneous vegetative growth in the region, limiting the need for herbicides. Similarly, fewer pest species will trek up the mountain or survive long once there, naturally limiting the use of toxic pesticides in viticulture at high altitudes.

Colder Nights

You’ll often hear wine connoisseurs discuss a wine’s “acidity.” Acidity is the wine’s crispness or tartness, and it determines how you’ll want to pair that wine with food. Lake County high-altitude wines have exceptional acidity, because their winegrape growth is paired with very hot days and very cold nights

The region has a diurnal swing — that is, the difference between the warmest and coolest temperatures in a 24-hour period — of as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit on a given day. These enormous swings in daily and nightly temperatures enhance both the acidity and sweetness of Lake County’s high-altitude wine, producing a stronger, more distinct overall flavor.

Along with viticulturists in Argentina and the Alps, Lake County growers are constantly assessing and refining high-altitude wine grape growing techniques. Committed wine enthusiasts can track their ongoing findings at the Lake County Winegrape Grower Education blog.

And all wine enthusiasts should make a trip to Lake County, California, a high point for any visit to wine country.