Are we there yet??: A review of Colorado wine.

[Courtesy of The Persistent Palate Wine Blog]

I have to admit, I have been meaning to make that trek out to Palisade and Grand Junction to reacquaint myself with Colorado’s wineries, when it just so happened, they came to me here in Denver. Two days ago, I spent an hour and a half tasting through over 50 wines from the Western Slope. The last time I did so was about 5 years ago, and it left me… disappointed to say the least. I mean, it was great and all that we were giving it a go, but there was little I could stand by and sell for $20, knowing full well there were much better (and cheaper) wines out there.

Creekside Cellars in Englewood, CO

Over the years, I have kept a few I sincerely like on my shelf if someone was to inquire, but they seldom changed. Some have included Creekside Cellars in Evergreen, Two Rivers from Grand Junction, Guy Drew, Alfred Eames in Paonia and Denver-dweller Infinite Monkey Theorem. But switching up those spots or building up the section in general, just hasn’t made sense.

Until now…

Probably the most impressive change I saw in Colorado wine was the price drop. I think I would have always been more open-minded if I wasn’t paying $25 for a so-so Palisade Chard, when I knew I could get a really great unoaked Chard all the way from the Macon in Burgundy for $15. The only winery that is still, in my opinion, fetching entirely too high a price for their wine is Balistreri. Don’t get me wrong, people love the wine and happily spend $25, $35, $55+ for them, but to me this is a curious phenomenon. Tasting them the other day, I was startled by the alcohol levels they achieve. Almost port-like in nature, these oaky fruit-driven wines were pretty thick on the palate. These are perfect for the rare occasions where you might be eating filet or lamb, but my old world palate was having trouble with the lack of finesse. Ultimately, my perspective would change if I could justify the cost. Every wine and style has a place. As it stands now, though, it simply doesn’t pair up.

Not only are prices easier to swallow in general, the quality is rising in Colorado wines as well. There is no denying that. I believe it is a combination of more serious-minded vintners moving in as well as getting closer to figuring out which grapes really work well in Colorado’s extremely challenging climate, altitude and soils. Most vineyards sit between 4,000-7,000 feet in elevation! This gives vineyards great sunlight intensity, but a short harsh growing season for some. Judging by the high alcohol levels, however, that are still apparent on the labels, they are managing to achieve ripeness no doubt. That is one characteristic I would like to see lower sooner than later. It is still quite loud on the palate, making it hard to get through to the fruit, spices and structure that might otherwise sing. Perhaps covering the grapes would help moderate this? I’m still not entirely sure how this is being addressed, or if they feel their wines are more powerful, desirable and therefore more marketable this way?

To some extent, Colorado has an ideal climate: warm days, cool nights and low humidity. They are, however, some of the highest vineyards in the world. As such, there are inherent difficulties in fully ripening such sought-after varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc, on the other hand, doesn’t take quite as long, therefore it is finding success on the Western slope. Other grapes that are doing well are Riesling, Viognier, Syrah and Malbec (not huge a surprise as Argentina sees a similar climate and altitude). That said, Colorado winemakers are still experimenting with just about everything, from Tempranillo and Cinsault to Chenin Blanc and Semillon.

Of the wines I sampled, these were the wines (or wineries) that stood out:

Best in Show (for me): Garrett Estate Cellars

Totally strange website that had me rethinking my notes, but all jokes aside, there truly was not a wine that I tried from these folks at Garrett Estate Cellars that I didn’t like. All had modest alcohol levels below 14%, and all were balanced, varietally correct and tasty. Their 09 Chard was unoaked with bright apple notes and even a Burgundian flair of the fungal I so love about this grape. Their 09 Pinot Gris was similar to Oregon’s style, with white peaches up front and an almond note on the finish. Their 09 Riesling wasn’t too sweet, but it was thirst-quenching, floral and fruity, making it a bit dangerous. They even had a 09 Rose of Merlot that was bone dry and devoid of that awkward off-tasting funk I have been finding in so many Colorado attempts at pink wine. Finally, the ’08 Pheasant Run Red—a 1/3 blend of Cab, Merlot and Syrah. This is the perfect table wine for any day of the week. The tannins are soft, there is a modest use of oak and the flavors of the three grapes are really well-integrated.

Cottonwood Cellars in Olathe, Colorado

Best Value Red: 05 Cottonwood Cellars Classic Blend ($15)

Not only did this wine show well on my palate, I learned that it, in fact, won “Best in Show Red” for the Colorado Wine Festival. Cabernet Sauvignon is one of those grapes that personally needs time to come into its most appealing character, so perhaps the extra bottle age helped this blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot and Cab Franc (Cab Sauv’s dad). Only seeing 1 year in oak, this wine is more about showcasing the varietals, not the wood. This is important, as for so long, the majority of my experience with Colorado Wine has been a suffocating pillow of oak upon the grapes, making it difficult to know if these varietals really did or did not have a chance. I couldn’t taste them through the spicy, vanilla sap! Don’t get me wrong, these burly grapes could use a kiss of the barrel, but there is always a limit.

Best ‘Splurge’ Red: Creekside Cellars Robusto ($70+)

Michelle Cleveland just gets it. She hasn’t been doing this whole winemaking thing too long, but mid-stream down another career path, she decided to walk away and follow her passion. Thank God she did, because she is certainly giving Colorado wine a better image with every passing vintage. Only in the best years, with the best grapes does she make her ‘Robusto’ blend. This is an incredible wine that really does the higher price tag justification. If you are into big, bold Napa-style reds, make the trek up there and see if she will sell you one. There aren’t many, so don’t be surprised if it must remain a legend. But if you can snag one, it’s worth it.

Best in Value White: 09 Guy Drew Gewurztraminer

I am normally not too into this grape. I appreciate it for its exotic display of stone fruit and spice, but that damn orangey flavor always gets in the way of my total acceptance. Though this one does not evade the ever-characteristic orange blossom, it is more nuanced and woven into a myriad of other aromatics, so as not to overpower. The alcohol is moderate (13.6%), allowing you to really dig on the juicy fruit and layers of cardamom and citrus zest. Though certainly sweet, there is a good kick of acid to clean up the back palate. A perfect accompaniment to any Thai meal.

Most Enjoyable Grape Overall: Cabernet Franc

I am eager to see how this varietal pushes forward in this great state. Producers like Mesa Park Vineyards, Infinite Monkey and Bonaquisti Wine Company are putting out some terrific previews with their current releases.

And finally, some honorable mentions:

-If you’re to the moon for big, toasty, rich Chardonnays: 09 Two Rivers Chardonnay ($15)

-If you desire gamey, blackberry, oak-influenced Syrah: 09 Again, Two Rivers ($15)

-If you are craving a citrusy, streamlined Sauvignon Blanc: 10 Infinite Monkey Theorem ($18) and 08 Garfield Estate Fume Blanc ($12)

-Searching for a good, solid everyday red Cab blend: 09 Creekside Cellars Rosso ($18)

-If you have a sweet tooth when it comes to red wine: NV Bonacquisti Vinny No Neck ($17)

-Want a fun, funky Rose?: 09 Zephyr Cellars Rose

-For a rich, full bodied Cab: 08 Boulder Creek Cabernet

Every wine region has its infancy and awkward teenage years. Colorado, it seems, is finally working through the pimply years and coming into its own. It feels good to support local agriculture, especially when you truly prefer it to another. I can tell you that I regularly sip on Creekside and Infinite Monkey. I can confidently say I have added a couple more to the list after this tasting. Ten more years, and I am certain we will not only know its character better… we will be craving over others with all our wonderful Colorado cheese, livestock and garden fresh food!

About Ashley Hausman

Originally from Wisconsin, Ashley moved to Colorado to hike and climb mountains as soon as she had a B.A. in hand. Quickly she learned, she needed to find a career. So she went back to grad school to get her PhD in English & American Literature, beginning with a Masters at New York University. A few long papers, a thesis and a masters degree later, she found wine was not only an incredible way to enhance Derridean studies, but it had its own story to tell: of regions, soils, cultures and farming. While Woolf still had her heart, Burgundy was creeping in… She decided to postpone the PhD and go for the plunge. Now, she manages Little’s Wine & Spirits near the University of Denver. She orders by day, sips and tells all in her blog by night, and runs private wine parties in between in addition to giving advice on cellar building, wine vacations and food pairing. It’s a passion that grows only more complex with every passing vintage.

  • Josh Rapp

    Great article, I hope Colorado wine keeps getting better!