Three decades ago, a French consultant expressed that our Cabernet Sauvignon wines reminded him of the wines from Languedoc, in southern France. What appeared to be a compliment, was actually a negative comment. He was trying to say that our wines were a long way from resembling the wines from Bordeaux, since they were sourced from a warm region. This negative remark motivated Dr. Nicolás Catena Zapata, third generation vintner, to explore the high altitude region of Gualtallary, in Tupungato. This region not only began to produce excellent results with early ripening varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but it also produced outstanding Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. At almost 5,000 ft elevation, cooler temperatures allow the grapes to retain more natural acidity and to develop moderate alcohol levels. Also, at such altitude, red wines develop intensely rich colors, greater density and wonderful aging potential.
Temperature, however, was not the only beneficial factor obtained with high altitude. After 10 years of studying the Adrianna Vineyard in Gualtallary, we began to understand the important role sunlight intensity played as well. With increasing altitude, the atmosphere becomes thinner and thinner, and at 5,000 ft elevation, plants receive a sunlight intensity (UV-B radiation) that is 30% higher than sunlight received in regions below 3,333 ft. elevation. In high altitude regions like Gualtallary, all mothers would apply sunscreen to their children. Plants, however, in order to protect their seeds, produce phenolic compounds that ”tan” (darken) the grapes’ skins, preventing harmful UV-B from reaching the seeds. Fortunately, these phenolic compounds contribute to improving the quality of red wines, increasing their color and aging potential.