Not long ago, Sunset Magazine called Colorado the ‘next wine country’. I consider this, still hanging on the words written long ago by New York Times’ writer, Stephani Jackenthal, who tasted a ‘sturdy’ Syrah that was reminiscent of the Rhone Valley, and I wonder to myself about the one question I get asked just about every time I teach a class: What do I think of Colorado wine? Often this is asked with a scrunched up, slightly pink face, as though expecting a laugh or a snore from me. But I’m not entirely certain where the disbelief comes from…
I taste wine for a living. By that, I mean to say I try dozens of wines monthly, sometimes even weekly depending on the season and the number of mass industry tastings (ie cattle calls). Mooing my way through the good, bad and wickedly wrong wines in the market, I feel my opinion of ‘distasteful’ is rather different than those of some people. That, and I am trained to not really care what other people think. Therefore, I truly taste each wine on its own merit—not wearing a backpack of assumptions, searching for flaws or fabulousness just because it’s the ‘thing to do’. I could give a rip if Beaujolais is back or not, if Merlot is lame, or if Chardonnay should suffocate in oak or live a life of fermentation/ageing in complete and utter unadultered steel.
At the end of the day, I trust my tongue. It’s simple. Is this wine well made or not? Do I like it or not?
And so, when asked upon the status of Colorado wine, I shut down for sake of losing myself in a rant as I have just now, merely to say, “I don’t know. Depends.”
Just as there are undrinkable wines from California I have come across, wines that even my toilet is unnerved by from Italy and unexpected delights from friend’s basements using grapes from Cali, so too are there the good, bad and wickedly wrong from Colorado. But I’m an optimist. And so, let us focus on the good, the great potential of this insanely high elevation wine region.
At 4,000-7,000 feet, Colorado is the highest wine region in the world. With that, comes many challenges. But really, what wine region is without their own battles, whether the forceful Mistral of south France or the parching drought of Barossa? You make do. Even grapes learn this valuable lesson and adapt as best they can.
Thanks to such sources as the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board and local writers like Kyle Schlachter, I am learning a lot more than I knew before. Here in Colorado, the temperatures can get down to 30 or 40 below zero. The winds gain momentum to the heights of 100 miles per hour. Gratefully, there are pockets of reprieve where these extremes are muted–valleys that give shelter to so many vineyards. And really, there are so many vineyards. What began as a few vines in 1890 by Governor Crawford, became 5 wineries in 1990, then an astounding 100 wineries today, as if overnight. So what exactly gave people the hope? Why here? Why now?
To be fair, there are a handful of wineries, where the owner has little or no experience in the business. The idea, the romance of it, is mesmerizing. Real estate here is a bit more affordable than Cali, it’s a new frontier, and there is always skiing in the winter. So the dream is within reach. There are those who never seem to transcend that vision by actually handing the reigns to vintners who know how to execute that dream. And there are those, like Bookcliff Vineyards or Two Rivers for example, who realize their weakness and hire to that.
Depending on where you are exactly, the soils change considerably. The Grand Valley sees clay loam, gravel, sandstone and shale. The largest flattop in the world–the Grand Mesa– serves as its protector. Sunlight here is no issue, and during the course of the season they see as many ‘degree days’ as Napa. Simply put, it is a way to kind of average out the temperature to determine the likelihood of ripeness given the amount of heat a region experiences throughout growing season. Though Colorado’s season is short, it is mighty, much like that of Argentina’s various wine regions. Therefore, it can usually attain the ripeness it seeks. In West Elks, however, where the vines see deep, well-drained alluvial, they are not so fortunate to see as many degree days as the Grand Valley. In fact, they can see as little as 30% less! That doesn’t mean it cannot achieve greatness. In fact, some of my favorite wineries are coming from this AVA. Here, elegance and subtlety is the aim. Grapes like Riesling, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris are the ones who rise above others.
Argentina is certainly the closest Colorado gets to comparison. High, dry, shorter seasons, intense sunlight, and similar early season hazards are just a few ways they compare. Therefore, it is no surprise that we are considering grapes like Malbec and Tannat–both indigenous to southwest France. Other grapes that seem to be thriving are Cabernet Franc (slightly earlier ripening and therefore easier to control than its kiddo Cab Sauv), Syrah (whom loves the relentless summer sun) and Viognier, which can handle a little bit of booziness (whether or not I like it… everyone else seems to…).
At Little’s, the store I consult and buy for, we like to think we have screened them for you, plucking out those we feel represent quality, regional wines. We are proud that they are finally coming around and displaying properties that make them respectable if not altogether exciting! Here are a few we are pretty jazzed about that you should give a shot. It is the ultimate way to drink local…
2010/11 Sutcliffe Cinsault:
When first I tried this elegant beauty, I was in the surreal sanctuary of Dutton Hot Springs, a chic ‘rustic’ getaway in the deep recesses of the San Juan Mountains. John Sutcliffe owns Dutton and therefore it is his wine you get to sample whenever you would like. Here, I fell for the nuanced, shy Cinsault. It had the whisper of Pinot Noir but the impression of a branding iron. I figured it was a matter of place when I returned to Denver. Revisiting this wine just a week or two ago, I was tickled to find that it was not a matter of place, in the Dutton sense. It was a matter of place in McElmo Canyone, where this wine was born– it was a matter of memorable wine from this dedicated winery.
2011 Bookcliff Vineyards Malbec: It’s no wonder Bookcliff thought to reserve a little land for the Malbec grape. High and dry is the name of the game for this fickle, purple-toothed grape, so Colorado has been proving to be just the ticket for success. It has taken decades, nearly a century to figure out what works and what doesn’t in Colorado. Discover a Malbec that’s not too uncommon from the version you may have met in Mendoza. Big, jammy fruit, a stare-off with the sun and a dance on the tongue. A giggle of oak is sure to warm you up in winter months.
2011 Garrett Estate Un-Oaked Chardonnay: Some like to joke that we are behind the times here in the Rocky mountain state. The farmers at Garrett got the memo, though: oak is out. Here, Chardonnay shows off its admirable fruit. Opting to grow this multifaceted varietal in a region that is considerably cooler year-round than the Grand Valley, they avoid the opulent, tropical fruit bomb so many warm weather Chards tend to exhibit. I admit I didn’t think Colorado could handle this grape, but Garrett prove me wrong.
2011 Infinite Monkey Theorem Sauv Blanc/Semillon: We have a few wines that flow in and out of the shop from this hipster, urban winery, built by English-born Ben Parsons in memory of his late father, but the Sauv Blanc/Semillon blend (a classic duet from Bordeaux) is the one that never strays. We love what he is doing and the energy he has produced in local wine interest. We thank him for the modern, upbeat branding, but mostly… teeny snap-tab cans of bubbles.
Creekside Cellars Rosso
: Year after year, Michelle Cleveland (rockstar of a winemaker for this Evergreen winery), turns this bistro blend into something that deserves more than a mere common place at the table. Changing yearly, with the inspiration of Bordeaux and the Rhone to carry out its expression, Ms. Cleveland barrel tastes and blends until this Rosso provides the current vintages best colors. It is always a surprise that leaves the palate sated and earnest.
2005 Verso Cabernet: The first time I tried this red, I needed to double check the label. Yes, it was all from Colorado. And yes, it was intentionally aged for properly timed consumption. This is the closest you will get to old world, rustic Bordeaux in new world Colorado soil. Six clones of Cabernet Sauv from Bordeaux go into this remarkably pure, 100% red from the East Orchard Mesa. A perfect pairing to Colorado buffalo or elk.
Two Rivers Syrah:
Always a safe bet, this well-priced Syrah has always been a dependable example of why and how Colorado can produce quality, affordable, tasty reds. Fleshy, round but not without the rusticity and wild nature this grape should demonstrate, the Two Rivers Syrah is nicely balanced with the acid one seeks to balance the warm, generous fruit. Kudos to winemaker Tyrel Lawson who narrows his focus to six varietals, so as to give these carefully chosen grapes the attention they deserve to prove to all that Colorado has what it takes to be considered a serious grape growing region.
Graystone Port III— A winery that defines itself by port, and port alone, Greystone has been turning heads since 2002. Though I can’t say it rivals native Portugese versions, it is more impressive than any others I have had from Colorado. You get a sense for the cool nights and warm days teasing its tension on your tongue. It is a fine, cozy sipper on a winter’s night–particularly with a hunk of stilton.