The question of what role terroir plays in winemaking, and if there really is something Colorado winemakers can claim as a distinctive terroir, can’t be answered easily.
Supporters of “terroir,” the concept that the place a wine comes from is reflected in its taste and determines its qual-ity, claim they can identify a wine’s distinct origins simply by blind-sampling the wine.
Does Colorado wine reflect its provenance, and is it enough to be unique?
For answers, I turned to Warren Winiarski, the winemaker who in 1968 helped Gerald Ivancie set up Colorado’s first modern commercial winery.
Winiarski left Ivancie after a few years and headed back to Napa Valley where he turned a prune orchard into Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, where Winiarski produced the wine that won the 1976 Judgment of Paris and made America a wine-drinking country.
During a mid-May tasting at the Colorado Governor’s Cup Wine Competition at Metro State University in Denver, Winiarski said how impressed he was with some of the wines.
“You should give this wine a gold medal, because this is the kind of winemaking we want to encourage,” he told the other judges.
When recently asked whether Colorado wines reflect any unique terroir, he paused to think.
Terroir, he said recently, “is more than the soil, it can be any number of things that are not man made.”
For Colorado, that includes the elevation.
“I think growing the grapes at (your) altitude might have an effect,” he said. “I can’t really describe it, but I find the white wines develop clarity, purity and a transparency of flavors while the reds develop fruitiness and good tannins without heaviness.”
Colorado state enologist Stephen Menke said in an email that the Governor’s Cup judges generally agreed that Colorado terroir is “expressed in the fruit-forward flavor of both whites and reds, the darker color of Colorado reds and the fruitiness/acidity balance of the un-oaked Chardonnay and some other whites.”
Wine writer Jamie Goode on his blog, Wineanorak.com, said terroir “consists of the site or region-specific characteristics” of a wine.
As noted last week, Winiarski strongly believes in regionality but also insists there is much more than that.
Well-made wines “betray their origins some way or another,” Winiarski told Kyle Schlachter of Colorado Wine Press.
“When we find a wine that expresses and satisfies by its completeness then we’ve gone beyond regional characteristics,” Winiarski said.
“What does it mean to be complete? Three things — (a wine) has a beginning, a middle and an end. When you transcend a region, you’re going in the right direction.”
That purity of expression Winiarski mentioned might be caused in part by the growing conditions (including the elevation) but as Menke also noted, a winemaker needs to have more in his toolbox than simply a nice place to grow grapes.
Colorado winemakers in some cases have 20 or more years experience in working with Colorado-grown grapes and that knowledge has much to do with the continuing improvement in winemaking.
It may be the keys to Colorado terroir are both altitude and attitude.