Colorado Wine – Could It Make It Big?

Apparently, wine is made in every state in America. Some states, like California and Oregon, are world famous for quality wine. Others – Alaska, really? – are surely home to no more than one or two inspired/mad individuals. Between those two extremes there are states like Colorado, where wine has become a recognised part of the agricultural landscape, attracting locals and visitors alike, and where, with a bit of luck, we may start to see truly great wines appearing.

Recently I spent a week in Colorado wine country, including a visit to the Colorado Mountain Winefest in Palisade, and below are my conclusions. But first, a bit of background…

All the fun of the (wine) fair

All the fun of the (wine) fair. It’s all very laid back.

A Brief History

Wine was first made in Colorado in the 19th century but following Prohibition, which came in 1916, four years ahead of most of America, vines were replaced by peach trees. (Like my home region of the Drôme, where the celebrated Hermitage is made, Colorado has a longstanding reputation for producing great soft fruit. Indeed, it pains me to say it but Palisade may grow the best peaches I’ve ever eaten. So if there’s a link that can be made between growing peaches and grapes, the signs are good for Colorado wine.) The state’s modern winemaking history only goes back 30-odd years and even some of the longer-established wineries like Plum Creek and Carlson Vineyards were only set up in the mid-late ’80s. The Grand Valley region, which includes Palisade, accounts for around 85% of the state’s grape production.

The Case For

In winemaking terms, the state has plenty going for it. First of all, its summers are hot and dry, so there’s the scope for good ripening. In fact, in terms of “degree days” – a broad measure of a region’s suitability for growing grapes – Grand Valley ranks with Napa and parts of Tuscany. The arid climate allows for minimal spraying in the vineyards, which in turn means that Colorado’s wineries have the potential to be as “green” as any out there. Second, Colorado’s high altitude (after all, Denver is the “mile high city”) means that there can be big temperature swings between day and night, preserving acidity and freshness in the wines, especially important in whites but not to be ignored in reds either.

In addition, because the winemakers aren’t burdened by history or French-style appellation laws they’ve been willing to try out a huge range of grape varieties – I tasted everything from varietal blaufrankisch to 100% petit verdot – and there were some great label designs, fun and funky, which would have been largely unthinkable in France. That’s the good news.

Colorado wine country - out the car window towards Palisade

Colorado wine country – looking out the car window towards Palisade

The Case Against

The flip side is that the winters are cold and in extreme cases there can be snow on the ground as late as May and as early as October. So although the “degree days” figures are similar, Grand Valley’s growing season is typically around 180 days, compared to 230 for Napa and Tuscany. Despite the summer heat, that’s still a short time in which to ripen grapes. And by that I don’t just mean sugar ripeness (which will eventually create the alcohol) but proper ripeness of flavour. Even worse from the growers’ point of view, an icy spring can destroy a year’s crop.

To my mind, too many of the “dry” white wines are not dry enough. Admittedly, it’s more of an issue with riesling and gewürztraminer, and I have exactly the same issue with Alsace versions of the same grapes. But, as far as I’m aware, nobody in Alsace is making semi-sweet reds. And I suspect there are very few people making commercial fruit wines or, as I saw in Colorado, sauvignon blanc flavoured with lavender (bloody hell!). The producers would no doubt argue that they’re catering to demand, both from the locals and the many visitors, but it can look like a lack of confidence in their ability to guide their customers, or even to make proper dry table wines. It’s not as if Napa has a sideline in cabernet sauvignon with blueberries. Be brave Colorado winemakers!

Unsurprisingly in such a young wine region with plenty of producers who have learnt as they’ve gone along, there are also signs of “iffy” winemaking, or should that be iffy grape growing translating into dodgy wine? I tasted viogniers from three different producers that had similar bizarre flavours of charcoal/wood ash and burnt toffee (and one was a double gold-winning wine!) Had all three bought grapes from the same source? And I tasted several reds – cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc especially – which were thin and vegetal, and quite a few that had the earthiness of beetroot. One Australian winemaker friend kindly suggested this may be the Colorado “terroir”, but my suspicion is that the growers need to examine their growing methods – all the boring things like crop levels, pruning and trellising that make a big difference in the final wine – and concentrate on red varieties that can live happily with the short growing season. Or perhaps focus on whites?

Tasting at the Winefest

Tasting at the Winefest

This may explain my biggest issue with the reds – oak. Superficially, a veneer of oak can hide deeper faults. And if there are no faults, well oak just makes the wine taste better, doesn’t it? But lighter wines are swamped by too much barrel ageing and fuller wines tend towards the same set of flavours regardless of grape variety. I know lots of people like an oaky red, but with honourable exceptions a lighter hand might have allowed the fruit to shine a bit brighter.

If all this sounds unduly negative, it shouldn’t be taken that way. Because I think that great wine can be made in Colorado I’m judging the wines against world class standards. And while I don’t think any of the wines I tasted are quite there yet, it’s surely just a matter of time. In the meantime, there are certainly some well made, often good value wines I’d recommend. Here’s the proof:

White wines

Hermosa Vineyards Viognier 2009

Kenneth Dunn at Hermosa Vineyards

Kenneth Dunn of Hermosa Vineyards

I would have thought that viognier would work well in Colorado, but of the half-dozen or so I tasted only Hermosa’s had the sort of varietal expression I would expect: texture, richness and stone fruits on the palate. Kenneth Dunn, the winemaker, does like his oak barrels though. I would cut down on the two years (!) in barrel and release the wine a little younger.

Plum Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2012

Plum Creek sauvignon blanc

Plum Creek sauvignon blanc

Looks to New Zealand rather than France. Very zesty, aromatic and fresh. Lots of grapefruit.

Plum Creek Palisade Festival

Plum Creek Palisade Festival

Plum Creek Palisade Festival

A blend of sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot gris and riesling. Off-dry and orange blossom-y. Despite my comments about sweeter styles, I liked this a lot. In fact, although Plum Creek’s sauvignon was judged the best white at the show, I had a slight preference for this. It reminded me of certain Argentinian torrontes or the Torres’ wine Esmerelda. Good everyday drinking.

Two Rivers Chardonnay 2010

 

Two Rivers chardonnay (left)

Two Rivers chardonnay (left)

All the grapes were grown around Palisade and East Orchard Mesa, but the wine came across like a Pouilly-Fuissé. Spiced pear fruit, oak there but not overwhelming. Really quite classy.

Canyon Wind Chardonnay 2012

Canyon Wind chardonnay

Canyon Wind chardonnay

This was aged in stainless steel vats in which American and French oak staves had been immersed; really just a way to get some oak flavour without the cost of barrels. Being a purist, I don’t normally approve, but it worked here. Like the Two Rivers, quite French in style but this time with a bit less oak and a bit more zip – more Macon than Pouilly. Nivea and lime zest aromas. I’d very happily drink this.

Reeder Mesa Gewürztraminer 2012

Two gewurztraminers - Reeder Mesa (left) and Carlson's "Laughing Cat" (right)

Two gewurztraminers – Reeder Mesa (left) and Carlson’s “Laughing Cat” (right)

Very aromatic – rose and orange peel. Sweetness is balanced by crisp acidity (not normally a gewürz strong point) so that the overall balance works. See also their petit verdot in the reds section.

Carlson Vineyards “Laughing Cat” Sweet Gewurztraminer 2012

Also aromatic, if not quite so overt. Very zesty – lime and Rose’s lime cordial. Had a slight prickle on the palate, which helped lift it too. It went very well with a slow cooked pork with peanut sauce dish the students from the local catering college has prepared for the VIP tent. What do you mean? Of course I was in the VIP tent.

Whitewater Hill Vineyards Late Harvest Riesling 2011

Whitewater Hill Late Harvest Riesling

Whitewater Hill Late Harvest Riesling

More Clare Valley than Rhein. Lime zest and petrol on the nose. Palate consistent and true to the grape.

Bookcliff “Friday’s Folly” White

An easy-going, everyday blend of viognier, chardonnay, muscat and riesling. Simple, cheap and fruity, and no worse for that.

Stoney Mesa Pinot Gris 2012

A crisp, clean style. No great complexity, but its slightly tropical fruit (guava, banana) is attractive.

Red Wines

Turquoise Mesa Colorado Crimson 2011

Turquoise Mesa Colorado Crimson

Turquoise Mesa Colorado Crimson

Weirdly, given the difficulties some growers seemed to have ripening relative cool-loving cab franc and pinot noir, there was no problem with this more Mediterranean-inspired blend of syrah (47%), mourvedre (30%), viognier (12%) and cinsault (11%). Although there was too much oak for my taste, the chocolate and cherry fruit, texture and bright colour were attractive. Voted best red in the show.

Alfred Eames Tempranillo 2009

Alfred Eames Tempranillo

Alfred Eames Tempranillo

Ripe and juicy, although the oak flattened the varietal character somewhat.

Reeder Mesa Petit Verdot 2010

Reeder Mesa Petit Verdot

Reeder Mesa Petit Verdot

One of the more serious reds on display. Palate is herbal and tarry to go with its hedgerow fruit. Not Bordeaux exactly, but going that way. I could easily imagine this with nice leg of lamb.

Bonaquisti [d]RED

Bonaquisti d[Red]

Bonaquisti d[Red]

Bonaquisti is an “urban wine company” based in Denver, although the grapes mostly come from Palisade and the surrounding area. Plenty of colour, plenty of fruit – cherry and plums. Supposedly a blend of merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon, but quite Italian in style. One article I read after tasting the wine mentioned that there was a bit of (Califonian? unsaid, but implied) zinfandel in the blend, which wouldn’t surprise me. This was my favourite red at the wine fair.

For now, this list may only be relevant if you’re in Colorado – finding these wines outside the state will be difficult – but don’t say you haven’t been told. There aren’t any truly exceptional wines made in Colorado…yet. But give it time.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhone Wine Tours (yeah, we’re a bit off our normal patch in Colorado). If you’d like to see more (or even some) wine, food and Rhône-related stuff you can visit our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – or, for shorter bits and pieces and lots of photos, go to our Facebook page. We’d be delighted if you “liked” us, although I suspect we won’t be seeing a rush of Colorado winemakers…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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