Let’s start with the givens.
Sure, Colorado’s got the whole continental divide thing going for it. Plus the mountains, the elevation, the scenery, and the avid outdoor sports enthusiasm that it inspires.
Yes, the geography of Colorado makes it feel like you’re that much closer to whatever you consider to be nature’s maker. (Because you are that much closer. Literally. Some of Colorado’s vineyards claim the second highest altitude in the world, behind only Argentina.)
And yes, Colorado is a magnet for hipsters in Denver, foodies in Grand Junction, and home-grown beers, ciders, spirits, and legalized marijuana.
All of that helps on the cool scale. But there’s one more essential reason that pushes the wine scene in Colorado over the top: the commitment that it takes to make wine there.
- You’ve got to be committed on the viticultural side, because the wine landscape in Colorado is, well, the Colorado landscape: rugged, beguiling, sometimes forbidding, extreme, and in some cases very isolated.
- You’ve got to be committed and very self-assured on the winemaking side as well, because your wine is just not going to taste like the other wines, even when you’ve planted the exact same varietals and use the exact same techniques.
- And you’ve got to be committed on the sales side too. At this point, to say that finding a market for Coloradan wine is an uphill battle would be a pun with more than a nugget of truth to it.
Here are some factors influencing “Colorado cool” when it comes to wine, along with suggestions for what to drink to get into the new Rocky Mountain spirit.
Cold Climate Grapes and Hybrids
When it comes to the study of viticulture and the science of growing grapes in the U.S., we’ve all heard of UC Davis, Fresno, and probably Cornell as well. But the University of Minnesota? They’re on the map now, too, and that’s because the borders of wine, in the U.S. and abroad, are expanding both geographically and varietally. The wines we’re used to drinking – the wines we’ve learned to drink – are not the wines we’ll be drinking 15 or 20 years from now. Cold climate grapes and hybrids are an idea to get our heads around now, and Colorado is a (very) appealing place to give them a test drive.
To Try: 2014 T-Red Lemberger, made by Garrett Portra at Carlson Vineyards, from a sturdy German grape that thrives in Rocky Mountain vineyards.
Colorado offers the trifecta for beverage managers: beer (and cider), spirits, AND wine. Some heads-up chefs and restaurateurs are leading the way (such as Josh Niernberg at Bin 707 Food Bar in Grand Junction) but it’s only a matter of time before more hospitality businesses — from restaurants to event centers to pop up food businesses — see the light of Coloradan wine as well.
To Try: New Avalon Ciders from Jack Rabbit Hill Farm, particularly the Bartlett Perry. USDA certified organic, no added yeasts, sulphites, or concentrates, and finished in estate chardonnay barrels.
To Try: 2013 Ruby Trust Cellars Gunslinger, a blend of 82% Syrah and 18% Petit Verdot. Ruby Trust’s owner and winemaker fully express their respect for the wines of Paso Robles and Napa, and they strive to reflect that level of quality. It’s an interesting reference point, but they don’t want their wines to be those wines. In the Gunslinger, berry, pepper, mountain herbs and black cherry are balanced by a plush and meaty mouthfeel that, happily, takes its time unwinding. It’s a quality wine worth savoring through the night.
To Try: 2014 Colterris Cabernet Franc. Talking about wine in Colorado sometimes requires a slightly different vocabulary of terroir than we’re used to — mesa, the Western Slope, and high altitude sunlight, to name a few. Much of that coalesces at the Colterris Winery in Palisade, which is also home to beautifully maintained orchards that supply the renown Palisade Peaches exclusively to local Whole Foods stores. Colterris’ Cab Franc is sourced from a cliff-side vineyard at 4,785 feet elevation that is protected by the foothills of the Grand Mesa. It’s rich and bold but refined, like a powerful speech delivered with masterful rhetoric.
Get Out There
This year is the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service, and both the parks in Colorado and the nearby wineries expect a bump in visitors as a result. Parks such as the Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction offer itineraries that maximize both scenic views (for campers, hikers, rafters, and mountain bikers) and the physical proximity to vineyards and wineries.
It’s Just Good
The truth is that Cab Franc and Gewürztraminer (or Merlot or Chardonnay or or or) that comes from Colorado is not going to taste exactly like those wines from more familiar parts of the world. That is actually the point. It’s a very big wine world out there and it’s only getting bigger, thanks to entrepreneurs and scientists and wine lovers who very earnestly carve their own place on the map. These wines are good, and not giving them a try – not exploring these expanded horizons — means missing out.
To Try: 2012 Creekside Cellars Cabernet Franc. Michelle Cleveland, Creekside’s winemaker who formerly worked as a master coffee roaster, brings a finely-tuned palate to her range of wines. The Cab Franc in my opinion is the star, with just enough of what’s familiar on the nose and palate (blackberry, olives, tobacco…) counterbalanced with what’s assertively unique on the finish.
To Try: 2014 Stone Cottage Cellars Gewürztraminer. The 30 year-old vines are gnarled and craggly, as well as wizened and sculpturally beautiful. The vineyard is a neighbor to snow-capped mountains that severely lessen the distance between earth and sky, and it yields this wine that is floral, spicy, and just a little bit sweet. It’s a swirl of Colorado, Alsace, and the Mosel all at once.