Embracing terroir, the state’s natural environment

A Grand Valley vineyard with Mount Garfield in the distance.
Provided by the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board A Grand Valley vineyard with Mount Garfield in the distance.

It’s a good time to be a wine lover in Colorado.

This spring, Denver hopped on the natural wine train with celebratory pop-ups and the opening of a dedicated bar. Urban wineries now thrive in cities along the Front Range. Boulder’s Bookcliff Vineyards even won “Best in Show” at the Governor’s Cup Wine Collection in September 2018.

We even have our own master of wine, in Ashley Hausman.

And yet, winemaking in the Centennial State is still finding its way. Thus far, Colorado’s wine industry has largely been driven by its potential as a tourist attractant, and rightly so. Whether you’re cycling between the vineyards of the Western Slope or enjoying award-winning vintages with a cheese platter on the grassy grounds of historic Holy Cross Abbey, our tasting scene is certainly vacation-worthy.

But for Colorado wine to rise to the next level, it’s got to be about more than the winery experience, according to Carlin Karr, sommelier at Frasca Food and Wine (which won a James Beard Award in 2013 for outstanding wine program). The wine itself has to be worthy. But what does that mean?

When Karr is selecting vintages for Frasca’s wine list, she of course looks for flavor — is it tasty and “correct”? — but she also considers how the grapes were farmed and whether the value-to-quality ratio holds up against other regions.

Despite the fact that people grew grapes and made wine all over the state in the late 19th century, when it comes to post-Prohibition production, Colorado’s wine industry is young and finding its way. Growers and makers have been following California’s lead, planting grapes that don’t offer their best expressions in our short season and high-elevation climate. And, perhaps because of the struggles with getting these varietals to produce, growing organically is on few grape farmers’ radar.

However, while that might mean our wines aren’t yet ready for Frasca’s menu, Colorado’s first Master of Wine Ashley Hausman describes the industry as “becoming.”

“They are truly in the process of self-knowledge, understanding and evolving. It’s a very exciting moment for Colorado wine,” she said. “(There are) no rules, no strict ways of being. (It’s a) playground for the curious and ambitious to cultivate.”

And we do have a growing field of producers who are striving to prove that Colorado can produce quality wines that reflect and honor our challenging terroir.

Karr is particularly excited about Monkshood Cellars, a Minturn-based winery that “grows, ferments and produces wine and ciders entirely in Colorado with an emphasis on minimally invasive growing and fermenting.” It’s only producing two wines — a chenin blanc and a syrah — but they’re some of the state’s best, she said.

Monkshood owner and winemaker “Nathan Littlejohn is a rising star,” Karr said. “It’s all about finding the right varietals planted in the right place, and that’s what needs to happen in Colorado to really see the shift in people caring about Colorado wine.”

Jeff Stultz, head winemaker of The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey, takes a wider approach to demonstrating the state’s winemaking potential. He turned out almost 11,000 cases of wine in 2018, most of which were sourced from vineyards in Fremont County and Palisade. Some of his favorite Colorado-grown varietals to work with are viognier, syrah and cabernet franc, a grape that he said performs consistently and beautifully throughout the state.

His wines have consistently held up against other Colorado wines in the Governor’s Cup, so he’s increasingly focused on how they fit into the bigger picture.

“What I want to know is how do my wines compare with what’s coming out of California, Argentina, France?” Stultz said. In 2019, his merlot and cabernet franc won gold medals in Jerry D. Mead’s New World International Wine Competition.

But he also taps into some of that “no rules” mentality, and looks to his neighbors to make an unusual community wine.

“There were hundreds of miners working in the 1800s, and (Fremont County) is where they got their food from,” he said. “There’s all these grape vines still in people’s backyards … so there’s all these people with grapes. Well, we buy their grapes and I’ll take everything I can get, throw it all together, and make Wild Cañon Harvest.”

The sweet rosé speaks to the region’s history, Colorado’s sometimes quirky approach to growing and eating locally, and is strikingly easy to sip during a scorching summer afternoon in Cañon City.

Plenty of other wineries are on Hausman’s “who to watch” list, including Buckel Family Wine, Carboy Winery, Bookcliff Vineyards and more. And Palisade’s Colterris is making what one server at Fort Collins’ The Fox and The Crow recently referred to as “a life-changing rosé.”

With more Colorado growers and producers embracing the state’s unique terroir, Hausman is excited for what’s to come. The industry is starting to explore sparkling wine, a style that she considers well-suited to our short growing season. And thanks to a growing push for natural wines, growers are beginning to think more about land stewardship.

Ultimately, what will keep Colorado wine moving forward is for makers to help one another.

“I feel one of the most limiting factors in any emerging wine region is honing a strong sense of community,” Hausman said. “The more transparent our growers and winemakers are, the more they are willing to learn from errors, the faster they will achieve a better understanding about this state’s incredibly challenging terroir.

“It is a region unlike any other, so we don’t have a template. We have to share information to better understand what works best for the highest quality and expression of place.”

Coloradans can support the effort by drinking more Colorado wine and opening our palates to new-to-us varietals.