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A Beginner’s Guide to Colorado Wine

Colorado is probably best known for its spectacular landscape and the numerous recreational activities that can be enjoyed there. Whether it is skiing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, or boating, there is something for every outdoorsy person. And for the oenophile there is a growing wine industry and culture to explore.

History of Winemaking in Colorado

The Colorado wine industry has its roots in the western part of the state near Grand Junction, when in 1890 Governor George Crawford planted 60 acres of grapes and other fruit on the slopes of Rapid Creek above the city of Palisade. By 1899 grape production in the area had grown to over 580,000 pounds, and in 1909 over 1,000 Colorado farms were involved in grape growing and wine making. 

But like many other states anti-alcohol sentiments were growing and in 1916, four years before Prohibition was enacted nationally, the Colorado General Assembly passed a state version of the law. Grapevines across the state were uprooted and wine making ceased. It would not be until the 1960’s that wine making as a business would begin to be resurrected.

The rebirth of Colorado wine production started in 1968 when a dentist, Dr. Gerald Ivancie, began Ivancie Winery in Denver using grapes from California. Knowing the Colorado climate was ideal for grape production Ivancie later experimented with the planting of premium Vitis Vinifera grape varietals in the Grand Valley near Palisade. To assist him, Ivancie hired Warren Winerski from Mondavi Vineyards in California to be his winemaker. Winerski was well regarded for his wine making ability and would later go on to found Stags Leap Wine Cellars in Napa whose red wine won the famous Judgement of Paris tasting in 1976. 

Image Credit: Flickr user pamelaphoto58 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Over the next 45 years the Colorado wine business experienced tremendous growth with most of it occurring in the western part of the state. In 1991, the Grand Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), the first in Colorado, was established in the region between Grand Junction and Palisade. It was followed in 2001 by the West Elks AVA in Delta county. Together the two regions produce 90% of the wine grapes grown in Colorado and make up what is unofficially referred to as “Colorado wine country”.

According to the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, the Grand Valley and West Elks AVA’s are the highest in the northern hemisphere, at an elevation of 4,000 to 7,000 feet, and have alkaline soils  like those found in Europe. This terroir combined with abundant sunshine, warm dry days, and cool nights during the growing season allows for red and white international grape varietals to flourish. The most popular red grapes grown are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc. White grape production is led by Riesling followed by Chardonnay and Viognier. Overall, the wine styles range from dry white and red wines to semi-sweet and dessert wines. Due to the number of fruit trees in the area some producers incorporate peaches, plums, and cherries into their sweeter wines.

Current State of Colorado Wine Production

Image Credit:  Helena Lopes from Pexels

Today there are approximately 165 wineries across the state of Colorado with wine production and wineries now located across the state in the areas surrounding the cities of Durango, Fort Collins, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder. However, the main production and continued growth of what is now the Colorado “wine industry” remains in the Grand Valley AVA. In addition to grapes, wine tourism has also grown in the area; Wine Enthusiast magazine named Grand Valley one of the top ten wine destinations in the world in 2018. A good time to go is the third week of September when the annual Colorado Mountain Winefest hosted by the nonprofit Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology (CAVE) takes place in Palisade. The festival serves as a fundraiser to support Colorado viticulture and provides four days of food, education, and wine tasting. It has been recognized as one of the top wine festivals in the nation by USA Today. For more details on the Colorado Winefest click here.

Another annual event that showcases Colorado wine is the Governor’s Cup Wine Competition. In 2019, 253 wines from 43 wineries were submitted for judging, several of them new to the competition. The wines are judged by wine experts, chefs, writers, and sommeliers from all over the country and the best of show winners are announced at a public tasting event called Colorado UnCorked. The winning wines are added to the Governor’s Cup collection to showcase the best wine Colorado has to offer. To learn more about this event and the Colorado wine regions and wineries click here.

Feature Image: Flickr user Don Graham (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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