Wines of the Grand Valley: A tour through downtown Palisade
Special to the Daily
I have been an enthusiastic wine drinker since a semester spent in France as a college student. This sense of appreciation was reinforced by subsequent work and travel throughout Europe, including a number of years spent employed by an Italian company in the Veneto region — home to the carefree, easy-to-drink Soave, the round and luscious Valpolicella and the dark, intense Amarone. What made a strong impression on me was the commitment — no, the natural assumption — that one drank one’s local wine.
It was not until a trip to Palisade two years ago that I got my first hint at what seems to me an all-too-well-kept secret: Here in our home state of Colorado, we have our own robust, distinctive and intensely creative local culture of wine-making. In fact, currently, there are more than 125 winemakers in the state.
“People think of Colorado as a ski destination,” said Sue Phillips, owner of the award-winning Plum Creek Winery in Palisade. “But the fact is, this is a state that has been producing wine since the late 19th century.”
Things hit a bit of a snag in the early 20th century with Prohibition. More recently, however, Phillips said, “Today in the Grand Valley, there are knowledgeable, experienced winemakers who’ve been making wine for decades. At Plum Creek, we have the expertise of Jenne Baldwin-Eaton, who has maintained the quality and consistency of our wines for more than 20 years.”
The Grand Valley, which is a designated American Viticultural Area, has a climate that supports the growth of the vitis vinifera grapes, those with a longstanding history throughout Europe and beyond as fine-wine grapes. Some of those grown in the Grand Valley also fall under the term “noble variety”: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot and syrah.
FRUIT AND WINE BYWAY
Consider a visit to Palisade, where the best way to sample local wines, as well as meads and ciders, is a trip along the Fruit and Wine Byway.
“You can rent a cruiser bike or travel by car and spend a leisurely day tasting award-winning wines at some of our many tasting rooms,” said John Sabal, chariman of the Palisade Chamber of Commerce. “Palisade is veritable wine country, with wines made from the great European noble varieties and not just hybrids.”
The Fruit and Wine Byway travels throughout downtown Palisade, where your first stop might be gorgeous Canyon Winds Vineyards. The 47-Ten Series are light and refreshing reds and whites, popular with hikers and bikers. Head toward downtown and stop at Varaison, where winemaker Alex West will offer you tips on how to properly swirl, sniff and taste your wine. Another small-batch producer is John Barbier, who runs picturesque Maison La Belle Vie Winery — feel as if you’ve landed in France as you sip a glass of peppery syrah and sample a charcuterie board under shady trees in the outside courtyard.
Big-time player Grande River Vineyards is a name many will recognize.
“Our wine is 100 percent grown, produced and bottled from fruit in Palisade — either from our own estate or from neighboring vineyards in Palisade,” said Naomi Smith, owner of Grande River.
Asked why she thought Colorado wines might have gotten a bad rap in the past, she scoffs: “I beg to differ that today wines are better than they used to be — I think many Colorado wines have been good for a long time. In fact, back in 1997, our Meritage Red got higher points than an Opus One in a California wine competition. I think its part snobbery, part lack of education. But, thanks to the ‘locavore’ movement, there’s a greater motivation now to eat fresh, eat local and that is extending to wine.”
Plum Creek’s Phillips noted another reason locals are gravitating toward Colorado wines these days: fewer pesticides and chemicals.
“There are just fewer creepy crawlies on our vines than in damp locations like Oregon and California,” she said. “The Palisade sun is so intense that most of us winemakers in the Grand Valley use very few pesticides.”
The Colorado Wine Industry Development Board agrees, said executive director Doug Caskey.
“The low humidity precludes disease and pests that necessitate the extensive use of chemicals required in most of the major wine-growing regions,” he said. “Colorado viticulture is about as low impact as anywhere in the world.”
Ciders and meads
Traditional winemaking is not all that’s happening in downtown Palisade. Some producers are experimenting with ciders, meads and wines aged in barrels used for spirits. Newcomer Red Fox Cellars offers ciders and “wines that move freely between tradition and innovation” and are aged in Breckenridge Distillery bourbon barrels. Glenn Foster, whose family founded the California Ravenswood Winery, is both winemaker and falconer and founder of the company Talon Wine Brands. Talon offers an eclectic mix of traditional wines, fruit and botanical wines, as well as meads. Through their brand Meadery of the Rockies, Talon is “the original Colorado meadery,” Glenn said. “Mead’s popularity seems to be accelerating. It is both new and different — and ancient.”
Favorites for the season? The winemakers weigh in:
“For whites, I’d say our voignier. For red, Having A Cow, which is a new Bordeaux blend,” said Smith at Grande River.
Palisade Festival, a blend of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and Reisling, is a favorite of Phillips’ at Plum Creek. She also observes customers loving the Somerset Sweet Red.
“Everyone talks dry, but in the end, they drink sweet,” she said, laughing.
At Talon, Foster is noticing his Apricot Mead (made with local Palisade fruit) flying off the shelf. His Lavender Wine from the St. Kathryn’s label is a new production blending Reisling with local organic lavender that he is also excited about.
Christina Holbrook is a writer living in Breckenridge. She is working on a book titled “The Winelands of Colorado,” to be published in spring 2017 by The Hoberman Collection.