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Colorado may be better known as the Napa Valley of Beer, but it’s our wine that has the nation abuzz right now. Before you raise an eyebrow recalling that local over-oaked Malbec or too-sweet Riesling you tried way back when, consider this: Last year, Vogueand Wine Enthusiast both declared the Grand Valley American Viticulture Area (AVA), our state’s largest wine-growing area, a not-to-be-missed emerging region to visit. Food & Wine included RiNo’s the Infinite Monkey Theorem in its roundup of the country’s best urban wineries. And Centennial State bottles are scoring high marks (in the 90s) in major wine publications.
Why the sudden attention? After all, Vitis vinifera (wine grapes) have been grown in Colorado since the late 1800s, and by 1909, more than 1,000 farms across the state were cultivating them—then along came Prohibition. Colorado went dry in 1916, and vineyards were literally uprooted to make room for peaches and other stone fruits.
Locally made wine didn’t mount a comeback until 1968, when Denver’s Ivancie Cellars opened; it would take winemakers another few decades to figure out which grapes grow best here and rebuild the industry. But, finally, even international luminaries such as Doug Frost—one of four people in the world certified as both a master sommelier and a Master of Wine—are taking notice. “I’m definitely a Colorado wine enthusiast,” Frost says. “The past 20 years have seen great leaps in quality and better choices in grapes and styles. The growth has been smart and measured.”
Drivers of that evolution include an influx of prominent vintners from established wine-growing regions such as California; exploration of different grapes; and experimentation by a new generation of winemakers. Which means it’s time to start seeking out Colorado wine in the same way we celebrate locally grown and produced food, beer, and spirits. Luckily for Denverites, there’s no need to schlep through the snow to the Western Slope to get a taste right now; simply follow our guide to understanding, finding, choosing, and drinking Colorado vino from the comfort of the Front Range.
Making Colorado Terroir
How the Grand Valley AVA’s unique combination of elevation, soil, climate, and water helps create incomparable wines.
Given our other elevation-related superlatives, it’s no surprise Colorado is home to the two highest wine regions in North America, as well as a dry, hot, high-desert climate with a relatively short growing season. What might be unexpected is that it all adds up to great grapes—specifically in the state’s de facto winemaking capital, the Grand Valley AVA, home to 80 percent of the wine grapes cultivated statewide. Colorado Wine Industry Development Board executive director Doug Caskey breaks down the benefits and challenges of growing vines in the region.
Vineyards in this region range from 4,000 to 4,500 feet above sea level (they go as high as 7,000 feet in the West Elks AVA), meaning farmers have a relatively short growing season of just 180 days. These conditions don’t readily support late-ripening varieties such as Sangiovese and Zinfandel, but they’re great for quicker-to-ripen grapes such as Syrah, Viognier, and Cabernet Franc.
The light-hued, south-facing Book Cliffs act as a “heat sink,” Caskey says, absorbing and radiating the sun’s warmth onto the valley floor below. Area growers rarely worry about their grapes ripening enough for harvest, instead fearing they may do so too quickly.
The Colorado River runs through the Grand Valley AVA. Without this water source, the high-desert climate—just eight inches of precipitation annually, on average—could never support grape growing. (Vitis vinifera prefers 20 inches.) Grand Valley is home to “plentiful and old” water rights, Caskey says. “Even when other areas experience drought, the Grand Valley AVA is one of the last to be affected.”
Because the salts and minerals the Colorado River carries leave Grand Valley’s alluvial soil quite alkaline (the average pH ranges from 7.2 to 8.5, when the ideal pH for grape vines in this AVA is around 6), many grape growers lower the pH of their soil by adding acidifying agents to their irrigation water.
The airflow through the canyon and along the river creates a wind pattern, dubbed the Million Dollar Breeze, that blows through the area. When temperatures are cool, the gusts warm the vines, protecting them from frost and aiding ripening. On hot days, the draft cools the vines, preserving the grapes’ acidity.
Plentiful sunshine makes for hot days with low humidity during the summer months, which helps reduce threats to the vines from pests and disease.
$300 Milliom: Annual economic impact of Colorado’s wine industry
150+: Winery licenses in Colorado
344: Wines submitted for this past year’s annual Colorado Wine Governor’s Cup Competition, where judges chose 13 of our best vinos for inclusion in the 2018 Governor’s Cup Collection
Grape Variety Production in 2017:
14.15% Cabernet Sauvignon
9.18% Cabernet Franc
1.94% Pinot Noir
1.48% Pinot Gris
Vine to Glass: The Process
Wine is the result of few ingredients: grapes, yeast, sometimes sulfur dioxide, and time. But what exactly ends up in your cup depends on the infinite combinations of decisions, big and small, made by producers. Bo Felton, head winemaker at Colterris Winery, the largest and most technologically advanced producer in the Grand Valley AVA, walks us through the science—and the art—of crafting Colterris’ juice.
Over the winter, Felton and his team carefully prune Colterris’ 75 acres of Vitis vinifera; the vines produce buds in April, and grape clusters flower in June. Felton irrigates and manages pests throughout the year; tasting and lab-testing the grapes and monitoring growth and “veraison” (changes in color and firmness) continues until the acid-sugar balance in each variety is ideal for harvest.
Felton sends his crew to handpick the grapes into five-gallon buckets, which, when full, are dumped into half-ton bins; five to eight tons of grapes are gathered in a given day.
For white wines and rosés, grapes are mechanically pressed as soon as they reach the winery (the days of crushing via foot stomping are long gone) to extract the juice and limit contact with the grapes’ skins, which give a wine its color and much of its tannins. The juice is filtered and then pumped into a fermentation tank. For red wines, the grapes are de-stemmed—not pressed—and then the whole fruit goes into tanks for fermentation. At that point, the fruit, with its skins and seeds, is called “must.”
Felton adds yeast to jump-start the process, during which the yeast eats the sugars in the must, converting them into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and heat. As the red wines ferment, carbon dioxide is released, causing the skins to rise to the surface of the must, where they form a solid layer, or “cap.” Felton uses a hose to circulate the juice and break up the cap in each tank at least twice a day. After two weeks to a month, when enough sugars have been converted into alcohol, reds (after being pressed), whites, and rosés are pumped into stainless steel aging tanks or wooden (typically French or American oak) barrels.
During the first year of aging, Felton monitors acid levels, adds sulfur dioxide to prevent oxidation, and transfers the wine from its aging vessel to another container and back (called a “rack and return”) every three months to remove sediment and aerate the wine. Continual monitoring and, eventually, meticulous tasting and blending take place over the next six months (for Chardonnay) to a year or more (for Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and the like).
The final blends are combined, “fined” (clarified), filtered, bottled, and closed with screw caps—or, at other wineries, corks. Colterris’ bottles are screen-printed with their labels; other producers affix paper labels and sometimes seal with wax.