For home-grown mood-modifying matter, Colorado is best known for marijuana and craft beer. Colorado wine is a struggle, both in making and in marketing. Surveys in recent years by the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board found that a quarter of the state’s residents who drink wine monthly never have consumed a Colorado wine; by contrast, nearly all had consumed California wine.
Yet, the state’s grape growers and winemakers are undaunted. Colorado has around 1,000 acres planted to wine grapes. Roughly 120 wineries released 140,000 cases in 2013, the most recent year for which production figures are available.
“Never underestimate experience. Rome wasn’t built in one day, and great Napa wine didn’t happen overnight,” says Dr. Horst Caspari, Colorado’s state viticulturist and a Colorado State University professor at the Western Colorado Research Center of Grand Junction. He’s been tracking and helping guide development of the state’s wine trade since 2000.
Grand Junction is the seat of Colorado’s principal wine county. Mesa County is home to three-quarters of the state’s vineyards, yielded 84 percent of the state’s wine in 2014 and hosts one of the state’s two American Viticultural Areas, Grand Valley.
It’s also where Colorado’s wine history began, in 1890, when Gov. George A. Crawford planted 60 acres of grapes along Rapid Creek at Palisade, just east of Grand Junction.
Since then, Colorado’s wine evolution has been rocky. The trade was developing with fits and starts until Colorado went dry at the start of 1916, four years before the nation as a whole adopted Prohibition. By 1933 sweet corn, peaches and other popular crops had a fairly firm grip on the attention of farmers; not until the 1970s did farmers and nascent vintners earnestly again look to the potential of grapes.
Colorado growers began to plant traditional European varieties – cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, riesling, merlot and the like. Now they recognize that several of those varieties might not be best for Colorado’s concise growing season, brutal winters and finicky springs, aside from select micro-climates where they do well. Colorado’s vineyards are among the highest in the Western Hemisphere, commonly between 4,000 and 7,000 feet elevation.
“From about 1995 to about 2010 the industry grew quickly and steadily. Unfortunately, … not enough attention was paid to site selection,” Caspari says.
A correction is underway, but just as farmers and vintners were reassessing what should be planted where, Colorado vineyards were smacked with a series of fierce freezes. Between 1991 and 2008, the Western Colorado Research Center recorded just three nights when the minimum temperature dropped below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. During the winter of 2013-14 alone, however, it happened on 13 occasions, Caspari notes.
Such harsh weather might not harm established vines, but many of Colorado’s vineyards are relatively young, and between 2010 and 2014 yields were off sharply. The 700 tons harvested by Colorado growers in 2014 was the lowest since the vintage of 2007.
Colorado grape growers are looking seriously at varieties historically more resilient to cold, including marquette, rkatsiteli, aromella and chambourcin, which can yield fetching wines that are unfamiliar to most Americans and thus difficult to sell. Nevertheless, such tolerant varieties are being planted more industriously and may account for 20 percent of Colorado’s vineyards by the end of the year, Caspari speculates.
But for now, varieties Americans can identify with set the agenda in Colorado. Riesling is the most popular variety, accounting for about a quarter of the state’s plantings, followed by cabernet sauvignon (16 percent), cabernet franc (12 percent) and syrah (7 percent).
In terms of quality, what stands out on the Colorado wine scene? Vintners sent me 11 of the top-scoring wines at last year’s Governor’s Cup, an all-Colorado wine competition.
As a group, the 11 were clean, fresh and balanced, cut more along the lean lines of Europe than bulked up with the weight and swagger of California. By and large, the exposure of the wines to new oak was refreshingly restrained. Two syrahs tied for best of show, the coltish, blueberry-limned Canyon Wind Cellars 2013 Grand Valley Palisade Anemoi “Lips” Syrah ($35) and the slightly huskier and more bacony Turquoise Mesa Winery 2013 Colorado Syrah ($35).
For me, a few others were no less impressive, especially the Creekside Cellars 2012 Colorado Petit Verdot ($30), exceptionally flamboyant and layered for a varietal that commonly plays a more minor than major role in Bordeaux-inspired blends; the juicy and mineraly Boulder Creek Winery 2012 Colorado Syrah ($25), which in its restraint and accessibility seemed more akin to merlot than syrah; and the forward, distinctive and persevering Book Cliff Vineyards 2012 Colorado Reserve Cabernet Franc ($25).
My overall favorite wine from the Governor’s Cup was totally unexpected. The Creekside Cellars 2012 Colorado Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) was astonishingly commanding for its enticing fresh-fruit aroma, its layering of cherry, olive, tea and chocolate flavors, and its solid build, which while reinforced with tannic rebar nevertheless was readily approachable.
For all its struggles, Colorado’s wine trade has a fan in acclaimed Napa Valley vintner Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Early in his winemaking career, in 1968, Winiarski frequently visited Colorado as the winemaker for Ivancie Cellars of Denver, Colorado’s first post-Prohibition commercially bonded winery, where he and owner Dr. Gerald Ivancie introduced vitis-vinifera vines to the state.
For the past two years Winiarski has returned to Colorado as a judge for the Governor’s Cup. He’s been favorably impressed by what he’s tasted, and praises Colorado’s growers and vintners for their diligence in adapting to the state’s difficult growing environment. He’s especially enthusiastic about the prospects for cabernet franc, malbec, riesling, gewürztraminer and sauvignon blanc.
“Some sauvignon blancs are at the world-class level. They are outstanding, real beautiful,” he said.
Also giving a boost to the Colorado wine scene is the vintage of 2015. The vintage looks to be the state’s largest ever, yielding an anticipated 2,200 to 2,500 tons of grapes, Caspari said.
Few Colorado wines are likely to make it as far west as California, but Colorado’s developing wine trade is trying to capitalize on the popularity of wine tourism with numerous wine trails and wine festivals. Wine enthusiasts who plan a road trip that includes Colorado this summer might want to first consult coloradowine.com and grandvalleywine.com.
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 email@example.com.