Unpolished Grape 101: Why Are Vineyards Planted on Slopes?

If you were to drive through Napa Valley in California, the Rhone Valley in France, or the steep valleys of Germany, you’d see one thing in common- sprawling hills and mountainsides of grape vines. Besides the scenic beauty of neatly manicured vine rows as far as the eyes can see, vineyards are often situated on slopes to serve an important functional purpose: to make better wine.

German vineyard on a slope

How do grapes benefit from slopes?


Grapes are sometimes grown on slopes to benefit from cooler air. In some hot regions like California or Chile, the temperatures on the valley floors are so hot that it could make grape-growing very challenging. In extreme cases, the intense heat could scorch the grapes or cause permanent damage to the vines. In addition, the heat could cause grapes to over-ripen and lose the acidity needed for a well-balanced and structured wine.

Planting vineyards on slopes allows for hot regions to participate in viticulture. For example, hot climate-Argentina is home to the highest vineyards in the world with some reaching over 3,000 meters above sea level. In cold regions, planting vineyards up a slope can have the opposite function of protecting vines from the damaging frosts that settle on the valley floors during early Spring.

Sunlight, Heat, & Aspect

Some vineyard sites, especially those in cool regions, benefit from being situated on hills and mountains. Because more sunlight is available on sloped land than flat land, the additional light can help to ripen grapes that may struggle to develop on the valley floor. In addition, the aspect, or direction of the slope, is critical. Slopes that face east receive softer morning sun, whereas slopes that face west receive more intense afternoon sun. The final style of the wine is important when determining vineyard placement. For example, a grower may choose to place delicate Pinot Noir grapes on east-facing slopes to make a light and refreshing “young wine,” whereas big-bodied Zinfandel grapes may be planted on west-facing slopes to increase the sugar and alcohol content.

Less Fertile Soil

Generally speaking, the less fertile the soil, the better the grapes. Soil on valley floors and flat land can be extremely fertile because the land holds a great stash of nutrients and water needed to grow and ripen grapes. However, the downside is that the land can be so fertile that the vines produce an over-abundance of mediocre grapes. Whereas grape vines with fewer nutrients produce lower yields of highly concentrated, better quality grapes. As vineyards move up a slope, the land becomes less fertile with better water drainage. Both factors help grapes to be more structured and produce more complex flavors and aromas. Globally speaking, the most prestigious and well-made wines often come from slopes.


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