Exploring Colorado’s West Elks American Viticultural Area
July 16, 2016
While many of the wines we are used to drinking come from vineyards in France or California at relatively low elevations, across the globe, wine is also being produced higher up. In Europe, vines grow in the Alps at 4,000 feet and in the Spanish Canary Islands at up to 5,000 feet. The highest vineyards in the world are in Argentina, with Colome, in Salta, being the world's highest estate at more than 9,800 feet.
What is the effect of altitude on wine? According to the Journal of Vineyard and Winery Management, "grapes grown at high altitude may develop a more favorable phenolic profile" (Nov./Dec. 2007). In laymen's terms, the lower temperatures and the greater intensity of the sun positively impact how the wine tastes, its color and how it feels in your mouth — big, sweet, tannic or chewy, for example.
Less than three hours from Summit County lies the West Elks region, Colorado's only other designated American Viticultural Area outside of the Grand Valley. This high-altitude terroir falls within the North Fork Valley of the Gunnison River and includes Paonia and Hotchkiss. Like the Grand Valley AVA, West Elks supports the growth of the vitis vinifera grapes, those with a long-standing history throughout Europe and beyond as fine-wine grapes. At an altitude that reaches 6,417 feet, the area is particularly known for its Gewurztraminer and pinot noir, while other grapes grown here include Nebbiolo, Barbera, merlot and several hybrid strains.
START AT HOME
Take in the gorgeous scenery as you drive from Eagle County to Paonia, heading west on Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon and then south past Redstone and over spectacular McClure pass.
Along the way, stop in Wolcott, where Vines at Vail is located. Here, owner and winemaker Patrick Chirichillo has been making wine for 25 years from grapes purchased in California through a grower his family has worked with for nearly 40 years. In the Italian family tradition, Vines at Vail first operated as a wine-making cooperative where locals bought their own barrels and participated each year in making their own wine. Today, the co-op continues, alongside a tasting room and cellar that is open to the public.
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"Bring a picnic," Chirichillo urged, "and share some wine. Do a barrel sampling and a winery tour — and I promise, you'll meet some nice people."
Before leaving, grab a bottle of red blend Vail Bella or Birds of Prey Cabernet.
Stop in paonia
You'll want to call ahead to let Eames Petersen, of Alfred Eames Cellars in Paonia, know you're coming. Petersen doesn't operate a traditional tasting room, but with a little advanced notice, he'll be happy to show you around the winery and, if you're lucky, offer a glimpse of the winery's impressive, underground wine cellar.
Petersen, who learned how to make wine in Spain as a young man, has no doubt that the grapes in West Elks are "world class."
"The weather is a problem," he said, "but it also actually helps. It gives the fruit great character. You can lose some fruit to spring frost, but generally speaking, the cool nights in fall tend to bring out the sugars and increase the character of the fruit. California has more dependable growth. We have greater character."
Though Petersen's limited-batch Collage, Sangre del Sol, Tempranillo and Pinot Noir are sought after in restaurants from Denver to Aspen to Grand Junction, he takes a low-key attitude to wine making.
"I don't live in the fast lane, I'm not interested in hurrying up to get on schedule — I think that's totally contrary to making a good wine," he said. "You've got to be a little laid back to make wine."
continue to Hotchkiss
Continuing west, you'll arrive in Hotchkiss. And there could hardly be a more picturesque location to stop for a glass of wine than LeRoux Creek Inn and Vineyard. On the day of my visit, I got out of the car and my jaw must have dropped — because owner and winemaker Yvon Gros laughed at my reaction to the lovely sweep of hillside vineyards.
Gros is originally from France, and remarked, "I have friends who live in Provence and they always challenge me: 'Colorado look like France? It's impossible,' they say! Then they come here, and look at the hills, the terrain, and say, 'Wow, it's really similar.'"
Given the challenges of the terroir, Gros and his wife, Joanna, decided to plant hybrid varieties — the red French Chambourcin and the Cayuga white — when they moved to Hotchkiss 16 years ago.
"Hybrids are less susceptible to disease so we could be all organic," he said. "And we make wine more in the French style, a little more acidity, like in the south of France."
Gros also offers this summer's "it" wine, a lovely rose.
"It's low alcohol, light in color, with a dry, refreshing taste," he said.
If time allows, those on a wine tasting jaunt may want to spend a night — or two — at LeRoux Creek Inn. Joanna Gros described the effect of this peaceful oasis on guests: "People walk out onto the deck and see the view and there is almost a sigh — the serenity, the privacy. Now the vineyards are coming into bloom, there are hiking trails down to the creek and ducks strolling around the yard. Its just so peaceful."
don't forget the cider
The North Fork Valley, of which West Elks is a part, has a higher concentration of organic farms than any other region of Colorado. A commitment to "chemical-free" is made by many of the local winemakers — as well as those producing hard ciders. Delicious Orchards, also in Hotchkiss, is another must-stop along the West Elks wine trail. Here visitors can sample a wide variety of organically-grown fruits and vegetables and cool off with a glass of Big B's Cider.
"We are a 'U-Pick' farm, and July is cherry season — so come on by and pick some cherries," owner Jeff Schwartz said enthusiastically. "We'll make you lunch on the grill. Have a cider, let the kids run around or play on the 30-foot rope swing."
Delicious Orchards also has an indoor cafe, a campground and live music on many weekend nights.
Christina Holbrook is a writer living in Breckenridge. She is working on a book on the wine lands of Colorado, to be published in spring 2017 by The Hoberman Collection.
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