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Wines with Altitude: Investigating Colorado Wines
By Wayne Belding
Oct 26, 2022
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Winegrowing has increased throughout the United States in recent decades.  Wherever one travels throughout the country, there are likely some wineries to visit.  Colorado is no exception.  Today the state is home to one hundred or so wineries in total.  Colorado topography is quite diverse.  Although the state is most famous for its high mountain peaks, it also encompasses the vast high plains as they ramp up to the Rocky Mountains and a range of intermontane and canyonland valleys where agriculture can flourish.  The majority of Colorado’s vineyards are in the western part of the state, near Grand Junction in Mesa County.

Like many famous vineyards throughout the world, most of Colorado’s sites owe their distinction, at least in part, to the existence of river (fluvial) terraces.  Fluvial terraces are the remnants of earlier floodplains of a river system that existed when the river was flowing at a higher elevation.  Terraces often provide an excellent habitat for grapevines, combining extra elevation with effective drainage for both air and water.  Fluvial terraces are elongated, generally flat-lying areas that flank the sides of river valleys.  Terraces are composed of older floodplain sediments and are quite variable.  Lenses of sand, gravel and clay can be found throughout the soils.  Since a terrace is set above the too-wet river bottom, vigorous plants like grapevines can send their roots deep into the subsurface to find adequate moisture from clay deposits in the substrate while benefiting from the elevated perch and natural drainage.

There are two AVAs in Colorado, The Grand Valley AVA, established in 1990, is by far the most important, generally yielding 75% or more of Colorado’s wine grapes.  Curiously, the Colorado River was known as the Grand River until 1921, when a Colorado congressman petitioned for the name change.  The names of Grand Junction, Grand Valley and the Grand Canyon are all tied to the former nomenclature.  The Grand Valley AVA follows the Colorado River from the mouth of DeBeque Canyon in the east to the escarpments of Colorado National Monument west of Grand Junction.  Vineyards are planted on fluvial terraces above the current channel of the Colorado River.  Colorado’s other AVA is the West Elks AVA.  Situated along the North Fork of the Gunnison River, there are around a dozen wineries with vineyards reaching 6,000+ feet in elevation, compared to the 4,500-foot elevation of the Grand Valley.  Beyond these areas are successful wineries in the Four Corners area in far southwestern Colorado, Delta and Montrose counties in the west, and a number of wineries in the populated Front Range.  Although most of the grapes are still grown in the Grand Valley, making wines near the consumer has proven to be a successful economic strategy.

The town of Palisade is the center of Colorado’s wine industry.  Located at the mouth of DeBeque Canyon, the vines here benefit from turbulent air as the winds blow down the canyon.  This keeps cold air, the greatest climatic danger to the vines, from settling in the vineyards.  The history of Colorado viticulture begins in Palisade.  Colorado “Governor” (apparently a self-appointed title) George A. Crawford planted 60 acres of grapes in 1890 above the town in what is now a central part of the Grand Valley AVA.  According to “The Fruit Belt of Mesa County,” an 1896 publication describing the resources of Mesa County, the fruit growing conditions “can hardly be improved upon. More than 300 days of perfect sunshine annually and the dryness of the atmosphere make it a natural sanitarium.”  The publication goes on to name the “finest European grapes such the Black Hamburg, Flame Tokay, Zinfandel, Sultana, Muscat and Malaga,” as being grown in the valley.  The grape harvest exceeded 500 tons in the early years of the 20th Century.  Other fruit crops were successfully planted as well, with peaches gaining special recognition.

Colorado adopted Prohibition in 1916, four years before the rest of the nation, and that spelled doom for the local wine industry.  Most of the vineyards were ripped up and planted to peaches or other fruit crops.  Although Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the combination of the Great Depression, World War II and the postwar recovery made vineyard development a mere afterthought.  In 1968, however, Denver dentist and wine enthusiast Dr. Gerald Ivancie founded the first modern winery in Colorado in his cellar, making wine from California grapes.  He hired an aspiring winemaker, Warren Winiarski, who went on to great fame at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.  At the behest of Ivancie and Winiarski, grapes were replanted in the Grand Valley in the early 1970’s.  Colorado State University helped with viticultural research and a tiny industry began to grow with the first commercial wine from Colorado grapes released in 1978.  The industry was given an added boost in 1990, when the state legislature created the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board to encourage research and market awareness of Colorado wine.  Estimates indicate that vineyard plantings grew from a paltry 23 acres in 1984 to 380 acres in 1994 – still a miniscule area compared to Napa Valley’s 44,000+ vineyard acres.  Several wineries were established in the 1980’s that continue to provide Colorado wines on retail shelves today.

The climate is generally beneficial for growing grapes.  There is plenty of sunshine in the Grand Valley AVA and enough warmth to ripen fruit.  Measured by the UC Davis Heat Summation Scale, The Grand Valley has a similar level of Degree Days as the central Napa Valley, but the growing season is more than a month shorter at the higher altitude.  Late ripening grape varieties like Zinfandel are not often planted.  Cabernet Franc, Merlot and other Bordeaux grape varieties can ripen well in most years as can Syrah.  For white grapes, Riesling has proven reliable and durable over the years.  Chardonnay, Viognier and Gewürztraminer are the most planted other white grapes.  While irrigation is necessary in Colorado, the low humidity keeps disease pressure low and there is a large diurnal shift that can allow better flavor development.

In most years, there is enough heat to ripen grapes in Colorado.  The biggest challenge for Colorado grape growers is severe cold.  Here in the center of the continent, there are large masses of very cold air that move south from Canada and settle in the low areas of the state.  This happens not only in the dead of winter, but sometimes in the autumn or spring when the vines are not dormant.  When sap is still flowing in a vine’s vascular system, the severe cold can rupture the trunk and kill the vine.  Severe winter vine kills have happened in 2009, 2013, 2019 and 2020.  This has led growers to consider planting more cold-hardy varieties that can survive the deep freeze.  There are also several growers experimenting with different varieties to see what new grapes might thrive at altitude.

If you like to explore new winegrowing regions, Colorado is well worth investigating.  I had the opportunity to taste a range of Colorado wines recently and found fine quality across many styles and grape varieties.  Some highlights:

2020 Storm Cellars Grand Valley Grüner Veltliner ($22):  Classic Grüner character with crisp citrus and apple fruits plus herbal and green vegetable hints.

2021 Whitewater Hill Grand Valley Dry Rosé of St. Vincent ($17):  A delicious and refreshing rosé from a cold-hardy variety with pure red cherry and raspberry fruits and a clean, dry finish.

2021 Peachfork Grand Valley Chambourcin ($20):  The French hybrid Chambourcin does well in Colorado.  This is a bright and pure red with black cherry and raspberry fruits, a cocoa-like richness and a delicate spice.

2020 Carboy Winery Grand Valley Teroldego ($30):  This northern Italian variety seems to like Colorado’s high altitude. Ripe black cherry and blackberry fruits backed by herbal, woodsy complexity.

2019 Bookcliff Vineyards Grand Valley Merlot Reserve ($30):  A lovely Merlot with layers of blackberry and black cherry fruits enhanced by cocoa, vanilla and baking spice elements.

2020 Mesa Park Vineyards Grand Valley Éqilibre ($39):  A Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. A lovely nose of fruit and floral scents with blackberry and red cherry fruits underscored by hints of lilac, herbs and spices.

2020 Aspen Peak Cellars Colorado Vintner’s Reserve Syrah ($35): A plush and rich Syrah with a chocolatey richness plus layers of blackberry and blackcurrant fruit interwoven with vanilla and spice nuances.