Colorado wine: World class or just a novelty?
By Bryan Criswell
If you haven't tasted a Colorado wine lately, you're missing out. The state now boasts nearly 100 commercial wineries producing various styles and types of wines.
But has the state industry successfully transformed itself into one that compares favorably to giants like California, or do our wines rate as a collective novelty?
In May, I participated in a media tour of Colorado's wine regions to get a firsthand look. The trip was hosted by Doug Caskey, director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.
Raising the Bar
Colorado wineries have been bringing home gold medals and top awards at the international and national levels, including the Double Gold at the 2008 and 2009 Tasters Guild International Wine Competition; Best of Class at the 2008 Jerry Mead International Wine Competition; and several gold medals at the 2008 International Eastern Competition and Finger Lakes International wine tasting.
Colorado Rieslings have gone as far as being awarded the Best in Style in 2006 at the International Eastern Competition, and Top Honor at the 2004 World Riesling Championship - proof that Colorado wines are arriving on the international scene.
I tasted several fantastic wines on the tour:
Woody Creek Cellars' Tempranillo was filled with ample fig and red fruits that finished with a touch of sweet cedar wood and ginger.
Whitewater Hill's newest release, the 2009 Viognier, is a classic dry Rhone style with amplified fruit characteristics - apricot, nectarine and white peach - tied together with just a hint of pineapple to give a refreshing quality, making this a definite summer patio sipper.
Garfield Estates' 2007 Estate Syrah resembles the sophisticated and complex flavors of Syrah grown in the Rhone region of France, with a rich white pepper quality laced around luscious blackberry flavors.
In fact, many of the growers and winemakers in Colorado recognize the similarities of the "Terroir" here with that of Bordeaux, France. Canyon Wind, Grand River Vineyards, Plum Creek Winery and DeBeque Canyon Winery have all sought to grow the same varieties that are legally allowed to be grown within the Bordeaux region of France: the red "noble" varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Merlot, Carmenere, Gros Verdot and St. Macaire; and white Bordeaux nobles alike: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Sauvignon Vert.
It's clear that Colorado wineries are taking a more professional collective approach to making wine. Tasting your way from the wines made a decade ago to today's offerings reveals the evolution from the raw naiveté of oversized, home winemaking facilities to the skillfully executed wines currently available. The involvement of certified enologists and viticulturists is the greatest contributing factor to the progression in quality.
I met Horst Capari on the trip, the state viticulturist of the Western Colorado Research Center, and was impressed with his outreach in educating wineries as to the differences in the cold climates of Colorado versus those of sunny California and how to apply these differences in the vineyard.
Some Colorado winemakers have taken matters into their own hands and gone back to school for an enology degree. Others have hired qualified practitioners or consultants with experience in winemaking, vineyard management and cellar management. The result is a big improvement in recent vintages.
A Work in Progress
For all the progress, an economic reality is holding back the recognition of the quality of wines that are being produced here: Much of Colorado's wine is sold through winery tasting rooms, and tourists and locals doing the buying gravitate toward fruit or sideline wines. The wine can be good - I tasted a pomegranate wine from Confre Cellars that was unique and certainly sound - but it's not a product that will transform an industry. Staying in business is a winery's first priority, and the resources, effort and risk associated with bucking a tasting room's best seller can be a powerful deterrent to change.
Colorado's fickle weather is also a formidable challenge, but not in the way you might think. High-altitude vineyards can be subject to harsh growing conditions. Extreme weather and poor soils can often beget spectacular fruit. Similar conditions elsewhere often result in the production of world-class wines.
The issue for Colorado vintners is that the state's extreme weather can wreak havoc on crop yields. Last year, a very hard December freeze in the Grand Valley of Grand Junction and Palisade decimated a significant amount of this spring's bud breaks. The freeze was a topic of conversation most everywhere we went.
Growers and vintners I met in the Grand Valley said they lost as much as 80 percent of their fruit - much of it from the western end of the valley. Others lost less - easterly vineyards fared better - but the impact to the industry was significant. The result is that winemakers will have less Colorado-grown fruit to work with this year - even though a world-class vintage may emerge from this limited harvest.
Find a local retailer selling Colorado wines and begin your own journey through the state's already rich portfolio of commendable vintages. Or you can do what I was able to do and visit the regions and people bringing this industry to life. You won't be sorry.
Wine Country is in your backyard.
Bryan Criswell is a journalist and former wine retailer who writes about wine and food for ColoradoBiz A&E. Look for Bryan at www.cobizmag.com or contact him directly at (720) 239-3322 or firstname.lastname@example.org