We just got back from visiting Colorado, and combined our camping with a wine trip. Specifically, we were on the Western Slope (Grand Junction and Palisade area). We were sure to explore a number of tasting rooms, and here’s what I learned from the experience.
1. Most of Colorado’s wine is from the Western Slope. Although the area we visited contains only about a quarter of the state’s wineries, most of the fruit is from here. This means that wineries from other parts of the state use their grapes. The Western Slope borders Utah and contains the Colorado National Monument. It’s a dry climate surrounded by sandstone cliffs, but it is also home to a major agricultural area–Palisade grows a lot of fruit and is well-known for its peaches. The area receives a lot of annual sunshine.
Photo credit: Blissful Adventurer
2. Western Slope farmers irrigate their grapes. There is very little annual rainfall, so it’s a necessity. But this is a good thing–Colorado has quality water. The area gets water from local reservoirs, which are partially supplied by snowfall. And if you’ve ever tasted Colorado snow (or water, for that matter), you know you don’t need to do much filtering. The water has a fresh, mineral-rich taste which translates into the grapes–you taste the water in the wine.
3. Wines are leaner in structure. In California, winemakers have to try all sorts of things to come up with lean, elegant wines, which can be hit or miss. Colorado wines, on the other hand, are effortlessly willowy. I speculate that the growing season is shorter and it never gets too hot, so it’s hard to grow flabby grapes. By the same token, they weren’t as complex as some California wines.
4. Colorado is strong in the red wine category. Warm/hot days are good for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Tempranillo, and the like. These varietals had a solid, reliable showing. Cab Franc was especially notable, standing out on each tasting menu. Pinot Noir does not do well here; it’s not cool enough.
5. Riesling and sweet wines are strong, as well. Every riesling I had was peachy and airy. With one or two exceptions, they were all off-dry or sweet. Most wineries also have a wide variety of sweet wines, though it’s not clear if this is due to demand or the right growing conditions. Some of these were fruit wines. A nice surprise was the generous supply of off-dry rosés–in an age where bone-dry rosés are de rigeur, off-dry ones are impossible to find in California.
6. Colorado makes very good mead (honey wine). The state’s oldest meadery, Meadery of the Rockies, is here, and makes more than a dozen varieties, including an intriguing almost-dry version and fruit flavors. If you like sweet wines, this is a great place to stop.
7. Tasting room culture is different. Some things better, some things not as good as a Napa or Santa Barbara. First, the tasting rooms are free. This is great when there’s a lot to sample, but not as good when they only offer three pours. It’s hard to get to know a place off of three pours. But this is mostly good, as it leaves more room in your budget for buying bottles. It was also a low-pressure sales environment.
Also good is the mellow nature of the experience. The tasting rooms were not as crowded as some of the hectic days in California. It’s hard to feel competitive when there’s not a long wait for your next pour.
Credit: Meadery of the Rockies
On the downside, the pourers weren’t as willing to geek out with us. It was hard to glean more than a surface understanding of the area–I understood warm days, cool nights, and a steady breeze, but that’s it. I would have liked to know more about the water, or why Cab Franc does so well. Perhaps this is because pourers are family or local, and not necessarily going for their doctorate at UC Davis. The winemakers are knowledgeable, I’m sure, but most of them weren’t available. It’s possible the pourers knew more, but weren’t used to people asking questions.
8. Colorado wines are priced well. Although there were some $30 and up bottles, most of what we saw was in the $15 to $20 range, allowing us to spend guiltlessly. The variety you can get at that price point is so much more than what you can get in California, where you’re lucky to get a rosé for that price. We got syrah, port, mead, and more, all for that price. We even got a rosé for $9.
If you go…