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Living on the Edge

By Debra Meiburg MW

Extreme sports. Extreme vineyards. No one can explain extreme passion, but the extreme endurance award must go to Australia’s Rutherglen stickies. These dark brown, sweet, highly evolved wines can take some 80 years to produce. Or, give the award to the late harvest Riesling from Nussforf in Germany. It had such high sweetness levels that thirty years after its harvest it had only partially completed fermentation, finally reaching only five per cent alcohol.

While Bhutan and Nepal could once lay claim to hosting the world’s highest altitude vineyards at 2750 meters, Argentina is home to the world’s greatest concentration of high altitude vineyards, most planted higher than a breath-stealing 1000 meters.  It is also now home to the world’s highest vineyard, Altura Máxima of Bodega Colomé, at a terrifying 3100 meters.

Contenders for the most labour-intensive vineyard prize could be Sauternes producer Chateau d’Yquem, California’s Screaming Eagle or Madame Bize LeRoy’s biodynamic vineyards in Burgundy. But with pineapple wines in Cambodia, papaya in Laos and strawberry in Vietnam, surely Asia can put forward a number of viable challengers? In Japan’s Hokkaido region, individual grape bunches are painstakingly swathed with netting to protect them from birds. Or consider Bali’s Hatten Winery, which operates in such fertile conditions that winemaker Vincent Desplat has had seventeen harvests in eight years. Or China’s first “cult wine” producer, Grace Vineyards, based in chilly Shanxi province, which has to bury their vine trunks in dirt and straw each winter to ward off the freezing winter temperatures.

The winery to make the best success of icy vineyards, though, must be Canada’s Inniskillin winery, which has almost single handedly established Canada’s reputation for a luscious nectar called ice wine by harvesting their grapes only when frozen, during the dead of night. While Canada and Germany have some of the most northerly vineyards in the world, New Zealand’s Central Otago region, at 45º latitude, is the home to the world’s most southerly vineyards.

The award for the world’s warmest vineyards would be hotly contested, but candidates could include Spain’s Jerez region famed for its sherry production, or Portugal’s Douro Valley known for its fortified red wine called Port. Other contenders would be Sicily, Morocco or Greece’s stunning Santorini Island (from which I just returned), where the vineyards are trellised in the shape of wreaths, positioned only a few inches of ground in order to capture the scant moisture from the soil and provide maximum shade for the grapes.

And speaking of moisture, the savvy public relations team of Thailand’s Siam Winery has made a marketing coup by dubbing their uniquely designed vineyards the only “floating vineyards” in the world. The vineyards do not actually float, as vines require soil to survive, but the vines are planted on small rectangular patches of land connected by a system of interlocking drainage canals, like a mini-Venice of vines. The vines are trained on high-hanging trellises and are harvested by teams in slim boats or on bamboo rafts and then paddled to the nearby winery for fermentation.

But surely the award for the most bizarre viticultural effort with moisture is in Hawaii, where researchers have applied the “cold water” method of cultivation to simulate the correct climatic conditions. Cold sea water, taken from the chilly lower depths of the ocean, is pumped into plastic pipes laid under the vineyards. Perhaps to water the vines, you ask? No, to cool the soil. And by cooling the soil, Hawaii’s air condenses into rain to provide freshwater irrigation for the vines. Since they’ve gone to all the effort, you almost feel like asking if they’d be so kind as to run these cooling pipes under the piping hot black beaches as well, so that tourists might lie in comfort on the dark sands. Now, that’s a passion I can understand.

Comments 3 Comments for “Living on the Edge”
  1. Matthew Rinkerman on 07.15.13 at 22:36

    Yes it is I have one in the store from 4100 feet amazing winery called Domaine Bouquet.

  2. Roland Lundall on 07.15.13 at 22:56

    Hi Debra

    Good article.I would just like to add that would you not say that most vineyards in Portugal are the most labour-intensive because of the fact that they are hand picked,the height and steepness of the vineyards and during pruning it can be a nightmare but they do it because they want the best possible grapes.The one’s you mentioned in your article are right but Portugal has all those factors plus the one’s I mentioned.

    Also about the warmest vineyards.Don’t forget the Swartland vineyards in south africa where during summer in jan,feb and march temperatures can reach boiling point.Thank you again for the information.


  3. bill crowley on 07.17.13 at 01:13

    Fun article! I’d probably go to bat with you on a couple of items. You wanna talk hot vineyards, all those plantings around Bakersfield, CA have to be among the world’s hottest grape growing areas (and the whole southern San Joaquin Valley for that matter). The Coachella Valley in SoCal surpasses Bakersfield, however, and I’ll bet its temps are the hottest for any place in the world producing commercial grapes. Gonna be 109F there today!

    On elevation. This is always a claim worth considering. In the 1980s I was presenting a paper on the Mexican wine industry and claimed Zacatecas might have the world’s highest vineyards. Someone in the audience suggested I check out Ethiopia, which had higher ones. Then, in 1989, while living in Quito, I found vineyards over 2800 meters, almost on the Equator. Not sure they are still there.

    With respect to labor intensive, who knows, but I’ll wager those terraced vines along the Mosel or the terraces on the south side of the Rhone in Switzerland between Sion and Lausanne are in the running.

    Thanks for a good read!

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