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Colorado Winemaking Gets Serious
By Marguerite Thomas
Dec 1, 2015
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Colorado is a notoriously welcoming state for skiers and snowboarders, for hikers, bikers, kayakers, bird watchers, and outdoor music lovers.  And as any bon vivant who has ever attended the Aspen Food & Wine Classic or the Telluride Wine Festival will tell you, Colorado is also a great place for sampling top wines from around the world.  Less well known is the fact that Colorado’s own vintners are beginning to produce some very impressive wines of their own. 

While a good many Colorado wines still rate stylistically only a step or two above modest home-winemaking efforts, a number of producers have begun turning out high quality wines made from Colorado-grown Chardonnay, Cabernet, Viognier, Syrah, Riesling and other vinifera grapes.  The best of them are wines whose flavor profile would be recognizable, and appreciated, by vinophiles anywhere. 

A popular truism is that it takes good grapes to make good wine, but growing good grapes in Colorado is no job for sissies.  Challenges abound in every winegrowing region, of course, but viticulture may be especially daunting in the Centennial State (so nicknamed because Colorado became the 38th state of the United States in 1876, one hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence). 

With semi-arid desert conditions in much of the state, there are many limitations on where grapes can be planted.  Also problematic are the state’s complicated water rights and restrictions.  And then there is the cold weather.  One the most dramatic climatic events occurred in November 2014 on the east side of the mountains, where temperatures dropped 80 degrees in one 24 hour period.  During that same cold spell the Denver Post rated cold temperature on a scale ranging from Teeth Hurt Cold (“You step outside, open your mouth and the cold hurts your teeth”) through Frozen Nose Hair Cold, down to Lung Stab Cold (“The coldest of cold”).

But even with the freaky temperatures, unforeseen snowstorms and tornado-force winds that periodically assault vast sections of the state, there are a few sheltered microclimates here where vines can survive and even thrive in Colorado’s two AVAs, Grand Valley and West Elks.  Eighty percent of the state’s wines come from the Grand Valley and Palisade areas, where warm daytime temperatures, an average of 300 days of intense sun, and cool nights, provide hospitable conditions for grapes such as Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.  Riesling and Gewurztraminer also seem to be doing well here.  The West Elks region is home to Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewurz.  Ranging from 4000-7000 feet, Colorado’s vineyards are among the highest in the world.

It had been a few years since I’d tasted Colorado wines, so when I happened to be in Denver this past fall I took a full day to swing by a few wineries for a glimpse of what’s going on here today.  My first stop was in Evergreen, a tiny town full of charm and history a 30-45 minute drive from Denver.  Surrounded by thousands of acres of open parkland where elk and bear are said to roam, Evergreen was for most of its history a scenic resort getaway for Denverites, though it was originally a mining and lumber town.  Today it is home to a number of small shops and galleries, and to an abandoned former filling station reborn as Creekside Cellars Winery and Café.  This is where I settled in for lunch and a wine tasting.

In an absolutely idyllic setting I was comfortably seated on the outdoor porch overlooking burbling Bear Creek as I began to dig into a delicious feast (homemade ciabatta, an outstanding antipasto platter and a succulent selection of meats and cheeses).  As I swirled, sniffed and sipped a glass of Creekside 2014 Cunoise my face must have registered my delighted surprise, for Creekside’s winemaker Michelle Cleveland smiled at me.  “It’s good, isn’t it,” she said.  “Cunoise is the least manipulated of my wines, it almost makes itself.  I produce 2000 to 2500 cases of Cunoise, and 90 percent of it is sold right here.”  Tight and taught and briskly acidic, with floral and herbal elements, the wine was indeed good.

Among other Creekside standouts are the elegant, velvety 2011 Syrah, a peppy, energetic 2010 Malbec, and 2010 “Robusto,” a big, juicy red blend of Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc plus Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.  “Franc,” an aromatic and flavorful Cab Franc aged 24 months in Appalachian oak barrels was one of my favorites here, and also one of Michelle’s.  “I think Cab Franc should be Colorado’s state grape,” she said.  “We understand how to manage the canopy better in Colorado now, and we’re learning how to work with our intense sunlight and strong UV factor.  All of this combined knowledge is helping us make wonderful wines like ‘Franc’.”

While Creekside wines seem to exhibit a certain French flair, Settembre Cellars in downtown Boulder produces vino with a hint of an Italian accent.  “My husband Blake and I fell in love cooking and eating Italian food and drinking Italian wines together,” explained Tracy Eliasson.  The couple honeymooned in Italy in September (“Settembre”), so it’s no accident that many of their wines aim for an Italianate style.  2014 Rosato, made from Cab Franc grapes that underwent a brief maceration on the skins before crushing, is crisp and refreshing.  2010 Sangiovese, light in both color and texture, has picked up heft and flavor from aging in French oak barrels.   Settembre’s big, round, golden 2010 Chardonnay has penetrating fruit flavors influenced by oak.  Settembre wines are all single variety and single vineyard selections; fruit is sourced from Grand Valley vineyards, and the wines are unfined and unfiltered.

I left Settembre and strolled two doors over to Bookcliff Vineyards’ winery and tasting room.  Such a civilized way to go wine tasting, with no cars, no traffic--I love these wineries set in an urban industrial complex!  I also love Bookcliff’s 2013 Tempranillo, with its mouthwatering aromas, sheer, silky texture and fruity-chocolaty flavors.  The 2013 Syrah is dense and peppery, and the outstanding 2013 Cabernet Franc Reserve is smooth and plummy.  Bookcliff owners John Garlich and Ulla Merz are, respectively, a civil engineer and a software systems developer in the high tech industry, with a shared urge to make wine as conscientiously as possible.  “It was important for us to grow our own grapes so that we can have control over the wine’s quality from the fruit source to the finished product,” John said. 

With that in mind the couple began looking for suitable vineyard land, which led them, in 1995, to purchase a 10-acre peach orchard in Palisade.  They’ve now expanded to 37 acres, on which they grow 14 different grape varieties including Chardonnay, Viognier, Muscat Blanc, Riesling, Orange Muscat, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Graciano and Malbec.  Their wines are 100 percent estate grown, and they are committed to sustainable farming practices (no pesticides or herbicides, although they do use some fungicide to control powdery mildew).

As I headed back to Denver late that afternoon I reflected on the fact that Colorado’s winemaking industry began on the Western Slope more than a century ago.  With Prohibition, the early vineyards were uprooted and replaced with orchards such as the one John and Ulla bought.  Today, modern vineyards are reestablishing themselves on the Western Slope and serious winemaking is beginning to flourish across the state.  For most people, hearing the word “Colorado” probably conjures up thoughts of schussing down a powdery white slope, back casting on the Colorado River, or rockin’ out at Red Rocks.  Me?  I’m dreaming of Grand Valley Cabernet Franc….