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Thursday, May 13,2010

Alcohol at altitude: Wine and mead in Colorado

By Heather May Koski

Colorado is a state with an abundance of recreational activities, mountains, snow and … wine? Despite unforeseen snowstorms, tornado-like wind and temperatures varying from below zero to off the thermometer, Colorado hosts a bounty of sheltered microclimates and river valleys that are key to growing wine grapes. The Grand Valley of the Colorado River near Grand Junction and the West Elk Mountains along the Gunnison River near Paonia are home to nearly all of Colorado’s vineyards. Ranging in elevation from 4,000 to 7,000 feet, Colorado’s vineyards are among the highest in the world — South American vineyards in Argentina and Bolivia are only slightly higher.

The Grand Valley and West Elks are classified as American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs — designated wine grape-growing regions in the United States that are distinguishable by geographic features. Brian Koberg, assistant manager at Boulder Creek Winery, says Colorado’s two AVAs grow primarily cool-weather grapes, which produce a wide variety of wines, including merlot, syrah, pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay.

“Along the Front Range, it is hard to grow any type of fruit with any consistency,” Koberg says. “Most grapes are grown on the Western Slope, near Grand Junction.”

Naomi Smith, owner of Grande River Vineyards in Palisade, says sunlight and a late harvest season are the secrets to the Western Slope’s wine grape success.

“We have over 180 days of bright sunlight, even if there are cold temperatures,” Smith says.

Smith says that because most vineyards on the Western Slope are smaller boutique wineries, the grape vines don’t get over-cropped, which allows each grape cluster to receive maximum sunlight exposure.

“Due to the sunlight and our conducive soil, we get some really nice flavor,” she said. “It’s fruitful and tastes like grapes instead of alcohol.”

Like Smith, Jay Christianson, a marketing member at Canyon Wind Cellars in Palisade, says the Western Slope’s unique soil, diverse history and multiple microclimates create a special combination that distinguishes Colorado wine from Californian or French wine.

“Our wine has a tendency to be Old World. It focuses on integration, overall elegance and feel,” Christianson says. “Colorado wine is phenomenal and meant to work with food.”

Hot days and cool nights are the weather elements that make Colorado a feasible wine-producing state. During prime grape-growing season in September and October, the days are long and warm with high-altitude sunlight, which allows grapes to mature to their fullest potential with natural sugar and flavors from the soil, air and neighboring crops. In turn, the cool nights allow the mature grapes to retain the acids that are essential to the production of premium wines.

Kathy Bradley, co-owner of Black Bridge Winery in Paonia, says the warmer days and cooler nights in Colorado are similar to Washington and Oregon climates, where coastal conditions are ideal for producing wine grapes for pinot noir.

“Chardonnay, riesling and merlot grapes do very well at our winery in Paonia,” Bradley said.

Kim Childs, owner of Black Canyon Vineyards and producer of a Riesling variety in Hotchkiss, said that the white riesling grape does well in Colorado because it’s accustomed to German, Austrian and Swiss climates.

“White riesling grapes are used to cool weather because they are a stable, quality European grape,” Childs says. “Riesling is a nice variety of sugar and acidity.”

Many wineries in the West Elks AVA plant their own vines, which develops the flavors and characters that some of Colorado’s best white wines have long been noted for. According to Childs, many vineyards are growing hybrid varieties in the West Elks AVA because they’re less susceptible to damage from cold weather and offer many options for blending experimentation.

“There is much blending experimentation occurring in the West Elks AVA right now,” Childs says. “Experimentation is an encouraging, progressive sign for the future of Black Canyon Vineyards and other wineries in the area.”

Most vineyards in the Grand Valley and West Elks offer wine tours and tastings from spring to fall. What a delightful way to spend a day — sipping Colorado wine and enjoying the altitude, sunlight and breathtaking scenery that can be found along the Western Slope.

A local option for Boulder County wine enthusiasts is the Redstone Meadery, located at 4700 Pearl St. in Boulder.

Mead is honey wine, where the honey is actually fermented to produce its alcohol content. David Myers, “chairman of the mead” at Redstone Meadery, says that Redstone produces three distinct product lines — nectars, mountain honey wines and reserves.

“We use real ingredients and zero sulfates at Redstone,” Myers says. “Fruits and spices are infused, not fermented into the mead.”

Myers says kettle to shelf time, when the mead is ready to sell, can take anywhere from three months for the nectar varieties to four years for the reserves. The nectar’s prominent honey flavor and light, sparkling taste make the variety a distinct favorite at Redstone, while their mountain honey wines are bottled still and are similar in body to red or white wines. On the contrary, the Redstone Reserves are dark, sweet and dense, fully loaded with rich fruit and honey flavors.

Redstone Meadery, which is one of five meaderies in Colorado, offers free guided tours and tastings Monday through Saturday.

The 7th Annual Colorado Corks and Cuisine show is tonight, May 13, at the Four Mile Historic Park in Denver. The event will begin at 5:30 p.m. and feature wines from the Front Range and Western Slope, fine caterers and local artists. Healthy appetites and reservations are recommended.

Call the park at 720-865-0815 for more information.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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