Vail Daily column: A taste of Colorado’s wine industry
As a native of California’s wine country, I expected that moving to Colorado meant embracing snow and mountains, and leaving vineyards behind. So when I saw grapes spanning Interstate 70 on my way to Vail, I could hardly believe my eyes. I was even more surprised to learn that not only does Colorado have a wine industry, that industry also has a decent history. In fact, wine grapes were first brought to Colorado in the 1900s by miners, though the industry virtually disappeared as a result of prohibition. It experienced a second birth beginning in the 1960s and is currently at an all-time high, with approximately 100 wineries operating in the Rocky Mountains and the Front Range.
Producing any great food or beverage begins with using great ingredients, and wine is no exception. The high elevation and cold weather, characteristic of much of Colorado, pose some challenges for farmers who seek to grow the perfect crop. The key to success is planting in places where there is adequate drainage and a more moderate climate. Rivers running through valleys help regulate dramatic weather changes, and make places such as the Grand Valley, North Fork Valley and Gunnison valley ideal for grape production in Colorado.
Picking Right Kind of Grapes
Another consideration for farmers is grape varietal. When deciding which grapes to plant, it is important for farmers to choose winter-hearty varietals. As far as whites are concerned, chardonnay grapes are the most common varietal grown in Colorado. Being the most winter-hardy white around makes this grape and ideal one for the area. Additionally, chardonnay is generally an early harvest grape, boasting ideal sugar levels in early-to-mid September, guaranteeing that it can be picked before the first snow. Though far less common, the next most widely planted white in Colorado is the dessert varietal, Riesling, which also fares relatively well in cold weather climates.
As far as reds are concerned, merlot is number one in the state, and the second most commonly planted grape in Colorado after chardonnay. While not as hardy as chardonnay grapes, merlot is strong enough to survive Colorado winters. Less commonly planted, but just as hearty as merlot, cabernet sauvignon grapes react well to the cool Colorado nights and the long growing season lends them to becoming a full-bodied and rich wine. One lovely common thread for Colorado red wines is their deep red color, which develops in the skin of the grapes.
Poetic Aspects of Wine Grapes
The beautiful red color and rich body of these wines is a testament to the most poetic aspects of wine grapes. Oftentimes the most interesting and complex wines are made from the grapes that have experienced the most stress and hardship, not unlike human character. With Colorado boasting rocky soil and cold weather, there is the potential to create some really interesting flavors, making Colorado wines unlike any other. To see for yourself what Colorado’s wine industry has to offer, be sure to check out the Colorado Mountain Winefest in Palisade on Saturday.
Prior her current role as an educator at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon, Sara Monson worked as both a harvest intern and wine tasting room attendant.