Dunne on Wine

The future of Colorado wine looks to be in Bordeaux varieties

Glasses of wine lined up to be judged at the 2016 Governor's Cup Colorado Wine Competition in July in Denver.
Glasses of wine lined up to be judged at the 2016 Governor's Cup Colorado Wine Competition in July in Denver.

At the outset of a wine competition, judges often are handed a “calibration wine.” The intent is to prime their palate, acquaint them with the scoring system and get them speculating and talking about the wine’s identity and character.

Usually, just one or two wines are involved in this exercise. This summer, however, the 2016 Governor’s Cup Colorado Wine Competition raised the calibration round to unprecedented heights.

After the 16 judges took their places in the tiered seating of a teaching lab on the campus of Metropolitan State University of Denver, members of the sponsoring Colorado Wine Industry Development Board distributed two flights of 10 wines each, one of whites, the other reds.

We were to score the wines, but they wouldn’t get medals. This was all warm-up, although we gradually learned that something else was at work here, and when the identities of the wines were revealed we learned that the board had staged a competition within the competition. In short, several Colorado wines not in this year’s competition were grouped alongside high-profile wines from California and France.

Call it the “Judgment of Denver,” inspired by the celebrated “Judgment of Paris” in 1976, when wines from upstart California took top honors against wines from noble estates of France, even though all the judges were French.

If Colorado officials hoped for the same kind of electrifying news out of downtown Denver, that didn’t happen. Overall, however, Colorado wines in the two flights showed well enough to indicate that wine deserves a place alongside the state’s better-known treats, namely marijuana, cider, mead and beer.

Among the white wines, a California release, the vanilla-scented and crisp Chalone Vineyard 2011 Estate Chardonnay ($30), was the group favorite, but a Colorado wine, the lean and citric Guy Drew Vineyards 2014 Colorado Unoaked Chardonnay ($16), finished a close second.

Among the reds, judges anointed another California wine, the finely layered Ridge Vineyards 2011 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($40/$50), their favorite, followed by a vibrant and willowy Bordeaux, the Chateau Montrose 2012 Saint-Estephe ($80/$90).

The top Colorado wine in the red flight was the silken and lingering Winery at Holy Cross Abbey 2012 Colorado Reserve Merlot ($20), which placed third.

While there were no dramatic upsets in the two flights, Colorado wines showed by their composure, fidelity and balance that they are rising in assurance and esteem. On top of that, their comparatively modest prices make them attractive buys.

This is especially so for the state’s red wines, reinforced by the follow-up competition, which drew about 250 wines, meads and ciders, all made in Colorado.

The goal of the competition was to come up with a case of the best wine Colorado has to offer. After two days of deliberations, the 12 wines the panel settled upon provide a fairly clear snapshot of where the state’s wine culture stands now.

Seven of the 12 were made with grape varieties most closely identified with Bordeaux, such as cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. As a group, the wines were lean, focused, balanced and snappy, with clean telltale fruit in aroma and flavor. Their alcohol levels and oak extraction were substantially less than what customarily is found in California wines. They were spirited yet refined, with an overall structure and understated complexity that spoke more to the traditions and topography of Europe than California.

One of the top 12 wines, as well as one of the Bordeaux-related seven, was an entry that would have stood out as peculiar in any competition, not only for its attributes but its age. Wine competitions generally draw entries from recent vintages, but this one was from 1991. That, however, only added to the wine’s allure and stature by contributing a haunting bottle bouquet to deep, rich, complex fruit and a finish that was remarkable for its persistence.

The wine was the Colorado Cellars 1991 Colorado Cabernet Sauvignon ($74), which winery owner Rick Turley says he entered not because he has a whole lot of it to sell – just 15 cases remain – but because he’s concluded that his and his wife’s wines in their youth are too “jammy,” or dense with fruit, for the palates of judges. “When our wines are young they don’t show well,” Turley says, “but they age wonderfully.” His wife, Padte Turley, made the wine.

Another especially impressive member of the case, and the competition’s overall best-of-show wine, was the Bookcliff Vineyards 2013 Grand Valley Ensemble ($19), a long and layered cobbler of assorted Bordeaux varieties.

Grand Valley, the most concentrated and celebrated Colorado viticultural area, is about 250 miles west of Denver. Like elsewhere in the state, grape growing is a daunting challenge there given early, fierce and long winters and compact and intense growing seasons. Grape growers are accustomed to losing large portions of their crops, which prompts them to turn to other states for fruit if they hope to keep their businesses going. Wines made with grapes from the West Coast generally will be labeled with an “American” appellation. All the wines in this year’s Governor’s Cup case, however, bore a Colorado appellation.

To deal with the state’s powerful winters, growers are turning to more cold-hardy grape varieties, which now account for about 10 percent of Colorado’s vineyards. Just one wine chosen for the Governor’s Cup case was made with a hybrid, the fresh and lilting Fox Fire Farms 2015 Colorado Traminette ($18), a wine that for its verve and snap will appeal to fans of sauvignon blanc. Traminette is a relatively new hybrid based on gewürztraminer, tweaked to withstand frigid temperatures.

All 12 wines in the Governor’s Cup case were made with grapes, but judges also selected six entries for a blue-ribbon half-case of alternative beverages such as cider and mead, which many of Colorado’s 143 licensed wineries also make. The six include one I’d especially like to get my hands on in California, the Meadery of the Rockies Strawberry Honey Wine ($15), an exquisitely balanced and enduringly refreshing mead that is all sunrise in its sweetness and spice.

For Californians, however, Colorado wines, meads and so forth aren’t easy to come by short of a trip to the Rockies. Happily, for skiing vacationers this winter, resorts such as Telluride, Aspen and Vail aren’t prohibitively far from Grand Junction, Palisade and Cortez, the epicenters of Colorado’s wine trade. Also, many Colorado wines can be ordered direct from wineries.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.