A strip mall in Parker, Colorado — a quiet suburb of Denver — is about the last place you’d expect to find award-winning wines made with centuries-old technique. But that’s just what’s going on at Purgatory Cellars.
Purgatory’s Marko and Ivanka Copic immigrated to the U.S. from Croatia in 2013, settling in Parker to be near family. They built their own winery in an unassuming shopping center, naming it after a former mining town in southwestern Colorado.
“Parker didn’t have a winery when we were considering opening it, but we liked the town, the community, and schools around,” Marko says. The winery began its first vintage in fall of 2014 and opened its doors in April 2015. Right out of the gate, it won a number of medals at the Colorado Governor’s Cup Competition in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
In what would likely otherwise be a bland retail space, the couple now operates a warm, inviting tasting room with a cozy stone fireplace, leather couches, exposed brick, wine barrels, a vintage wine press, and the largest wooden wine barrel in the state.
“We handmade the tasting room from floor to ceiling,” says Marko. They added “lots of rustic wood that complemented the traditional winemaking equipment.”
It’s the perfect environment in which to sample any of Purgatory Cellars’ 31 wines, including its amphora-aged wines.
The Copics ferment their juice in clay amphorae imported from Georgia, where archeologists have found evidence of winemaking occurring some 8,000 years ago, making it the oldest known winemaking culture in the world. Purgatory Cellars is the only winery in the state, and one of only a few in the country, using traditional clay pots to ferment its wines.
“What’s really special about Purgatory is that you’ve got a combination of an ancient, painstaking, and arduous technique with a winemaker like Marko, who’s just naturally really good at bringing out the best in every wine,” Chris McGuire, a sommelier in Denver, says. “He’s interacting with the wine every day, and he’s never mass-producing anything.”
Marko is from Plešivica, Croatia, an area located about an hour southwest of the capital, Zagreb. Plešivica is the country’s smallest wine region, but it’s renowned for its sparkling wines, clearly a source of inspiration for the Copics. Their amphora-aged sparkling wine, Indulgence Amphora, happens to be one of Purgatory’s bestsellers.
The Copics source the majority of their grapes from Colorado’s Western Slope, an area known for its agriculture — especially peach orchards and vineyards. They source grapes like Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc from Colorado, as well as varietals like Semillon, Viognier, Primitivo, and Petit Verdot. They buy two types of grapes from New Mexico: Pinot Noir and Malvasia, a grape favored in the Copics’ native Croatia.
“We were introduced to amphorae in Croatia, where a couple of winemakers experimented with that,” Marko says. “A gentleman who imports them is a friend of ours in Jastrebarsko,” he explains, a Croatian area with “boutique wineries and picturesque vineyards.”
Though some Croatian winemakers currently use amphorae, it’s not the norm — Copic was inspired by the idea from the family friend who was employing the technique at his own winery and showed Copic the ropes.
Purgatory’s six amphorae range from 150 to 300 gallons, and have been specially reinforced with chicken wire and plaster to prevent breakage when they were shipped over to the United States.
The four-inch-thick clay walls provide a consistent temperature for the juice and yeast to work their magic. The grapes are thrown in — skins, stems, seeds, and all — and fermented for approximately 10 months. Though red wine is typically made with the inclusion of stems and skins, white wine is not. The use of this technique on white grapes results in an orange-hued, complexly layered wine.
After the clay-aging process, the wine can be consumed as is or aged in a neutral oak cask for micro-oxygenization.
Indulgence Amphora goes through its second fermentation in the bottle in the traditional method. Beneath their crown caps, the bottles then age for another several months, resting on the lees. The Copics hand-riddle the bottles before removing the yeast and topping it off to make it ready to serve.
The Copics use a blend of Riesling and Gewürztraminer grapes, not the Chardonnay commonly used to make sparkling wine. Their blend imparts a crisp apple flavor with a honey finish, and enough residual sugar to not need additional sugar, or dosage, after disgorging. The amphora fermentation adds smoothness and a hint of bready flavor to the wine, which is dry enough to be classified as a brut nature.
“It’s just a really exciting wine,” McGuire says. “A lot of sparkling wines, you’ll want to do your toast and be done, but this is a wine you’ll actually want to drink.”
As for his motivation for using amphorae, Copic’s answer is so simple it seems almost obvious: because no one else was doing it. “I wanted to make something totally different and totally unique,” he says. “There are only two or three places in the whole U.S. using clay pots.”
Purgatory’s wines can be shipped to most states and are sold at a handful of liquor stores and restaurants around the Denver area.
“It’s really nice for a Colorado winery to be doing something so unique and unusual, and made with Colorado-grown grapes,” Jeff Karbula, sommelier at Ocean Prime in Denver, says. “I tell everyone about it. It’s an interesting story and process, right in our own backyard.”
“What Marko is doing is as old as the history of wine, it’s the way people have been making wine since the beginning of time,” Karbula adds. “He doesn’t take shortcuts.” From ancient Georgia to a suburban strip mall, people will surprise you.