So said Pliny the Elder in his encyclopedic work, “Natural History,” the first 10 books of which were published in 77 C.E. Wine was central to daily life in Roman times, both as a key source of potable, disease-free liquid (tartaric acid, naturally found in wine grapes, kills listeria and other pathogens) and as one of the most important items of international trade.
Cave de Tain, Hill of Hermitage, Northern Rhone, France
So as the Romans expanded their empire, they sought out and planted vines on sloped sites like the hill of Hermitage in the Northern Rhône valley in France. Sloped vineyards provide good drainage, crucial to healthy grape vines, as well as a number of other benefits. The Hill of Hermitage is one of the most renowned vineyards in the world.
Winemakers’ attraction to steep slopes has sometimes gone beyond what many think is any degree of sense or sanity. Planted in the 1880s, Martinelli’s Jackass Hill is the only vineyard that founder Giuseppe Martinelli planted that is still in use today. It is the steepest non-terraced vineyard in Sonoma County, California, and possibly in the U.S. The steepest section is a 60–65-degree slope, and it is illegal in Sonoma County to plant anything over 30 degrees today. That doesn’t keep modern generations of Martinellis from farming it – carefully! – with a tractor.
The vineyard earned its name when Giuseppe told a neighbor he planned to plant a vineyard on the hill, and the neighbor replied, “You’d have to be a jackass to farm a hill that steep.” The Martinelli family has been having the last laugh for the past 125+ years, as the Zinfandel wines they produce from it consistently earn knockout scores.
Martinelli’s Jackass Hill Vineyard
Modern winemakers continue to push the boundaries of where and how vines are planted. Spain is known for its long winemaking tradition and high-elevation vineyards with an average elevation above 2,000 feet. In the Montsant region of Spain, already known for its steep slopes, a group of leading winemakers have pushed further still in search of excellent terrain, diurnal temperature changes that preserve natural acidity and freshness, and relief from increasing temperatures. Espectacle del Montsant vineyard is indeed a “spectacle” to behold. Just getting there requires a long winding drive up steep switchbacks to the mountain town of La Figuera. The vineyard is a collaborative effort of René Barbier of Clos Mogador and several other friends, with the viticulture now managed by son Christian Barbier. Espectacle yields a tiny production of old-vines Garnacha from its dramatically steep hill. It’s clear to see why René refers to it as “The Hermitage of Montsant.” The wines produced here consistently earn top scores
Steeply sloped vineyard sites abound, and can be found in the Rhine and Mosel valleys in Germany, areas of Alsace, France, including Rangen de Thann, and in many other locations. Less steep but as notable are the slopes of the Côte d’Or – the “Golden Slopes” of Burgundy, France – including the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune. Some 2,000 years later, it certainly looks like Pliny the Elder knew a thing or two about making great wine.
Espectacle del Montsant Vineyard, Le Figuera, Montsant, Spain