Vines on a mountain: Elevation as terroir in Colorado winemaking

August 29, 2015 Leave a comment
The concept of terroir , says winemaker Warren Winiarski, includes all things not man-made. In Colorado, that includes growing grapes at high elevation. These Gewurtztraminer vines, thriving at 6,200 feet elevation near Paonia, Co., are among the highest vineyards in North America.

The concept of terroir, says winemaker Warren Winiarski, includes all things not man-made. In Colorado, that includes growing grapes at high elevation. These Gewurtztraminer vines, thriving at 6,200 feet elevation near Paonia, Co., are among the highest vineyards in North America.

The question of whether Colorado wines reflect a unique terroir has no easy answer.

Supporters of “terroir” – the concept that the place a wine comes from is reflected in its taste and determines its quality – claim they can identify a wine’s distinct origins simply by blind-sampling the wine.

Do Colorado wines reflect their provenance and is it enough to be unique?

For some ideas and possible answers I turned to Warren Winiarski, the winemaker who produced the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine that won the 1976 Judgment of Paris and made America a wine-drinking country. Before that, however, Winiarski in 1968 helped Denver dentist Gerald Ivancie set up Colorado’s first modern commercial winery.

During a mid-May tasting of Colorado wines at Metropolitan State University in Denver, Winiarski said how impressed he was with some of the samples.

In one instance, he told the other judges, “You should give this wine a gold medal, because this is the kind of winemaking we want to encourage.”

I called Winiarski a few weeks ago, asking if it’s possible Colorado wines reflect any unique terroir.

According to an earlier statement, he considers terroir to be “more than the soil, it can be any number of things that are not man-made.”

And in Colorado, that includes the elevation.

“I think growing the grapes at (your) altitude might have an effect,” he said during our conversation. “I can’t really describe it but I find the white wines develop clarity, purity and a transparency of flavors while the reds develop fruitiness and good tannins without heaviness.”

Colorado state enologist Stephen Menke said in an email the Governor’s Cup judges generally agreed that Colorado terroir is “expressed in the fruit-forward flavor of both whites and reds, the darker color of Colorado reds and the fruitiness/acidity balance of the un-oaked Chardonnay and some other whites.”

Wine writer Jamie Goode on his blog Wineanorak.com said terroir “consists of the site or region-specific characteristics” of a wine. As noted in last week’s post, Winiarski strongly believes in regionality but also insists there is much more than that.

Well-made wines “betray their origins some way or another,” Winiarski told Kyle Schlachter of Colorado Wine Press. But “a wine that expresses and satisfies by its completeness” goes “beyond regional characteristics.”

“What does it mean to be complete? Three things – (a wine) has a beginning, a middle and an end,” he said.

That purity of expression Winiarski mentioned might be caused in part by the growing conditions (including the elevation) but as Menke also noted, a winemaker needs to have more in his toolbox than simply a nice place to grow grapes.

Colorado winemakers in some cases have 20 or more years experience in working with Colorado-grown grapes and that knowledge has much to do with the continuing improvement in winemaking.

It may be the keys to Colorado terroir are both altitude and attitude.

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In search of a unique terroir

August 22, 2015 Leave a comment
As Colorado wineries mature, they have become more comfortable with making wines that reflect their places of origin. Photo taken at Stone Cottage Cellars, Paonia, Co., elevation feet, the second highest elevation vineyard in North America.

As Colorado wineries mature, they have become more comfortable with making wines that reflect their places of origin. Photo taken at Stone Cottage Cellars, Paonia, Co., elevation 6,200 feet, the second highest elevation vineyard in North America.

One comment you once would hear with regularity at any of the tasting rooms around Colorado wine country would come when a visitor put down his or her glass to remark, “Well, this doesn’t taste like a California Cabernet Sauvignon (or Pinot Noir or Chardonnay or whatever was being poured at the moment).”
While at times such comments were taken as a put-down of high country wines, winemakers today simply shrug, smile and say,”Yes, isn’t it nice? It really tastes of Colorado.”

The winemakers and tasting room attendants may stumble a bit when asked “What exactly does Colorado taste like?” since there’s really no universally accepted definition of what makes a specific wine taste the way it does.

Most of us fall back on the French word “Terroir” to cover a multitude of possible answers, none of which may the sole reason for a wine’s individuality.

Wine writer Jamie Goode on his blog Wineanorak.com said terroir “consists of the site or region-specific characteristics” of a wine.

And the well-respected – if a bit wine curmudgeonly – Jeff Siegel, in a well-done post on his blog, generally commits to saying terroir “includes not just a region’s soil, but its weather, tradition and history.

But is all that what makes a wine identifiable with place?

If you don’t know the traditions (sociologists spend their entire careers learning local customs and traditions) or the history or the weather, can you even mouth the word terroir and get away with it?

Colorado winemakers (just like those everywhere) would love to find whatever it is that identifies a wine from the Centennial State. What makes a Chilean Cab different from a Napa Cab, or an Argentina Malbec differ from a Cahors Malbec?

We know they don’t taste alike, but the differences go beyond the simple storage or transportation conditions.

When acclaimed winemaker Warren Winiarski was in Colorado recently for the Governor’s Cup wine competition, he frequently commented about the importance of a winemaker’s intent and vision (I am indebted to state enologist Stephen Menke of the Colorado State University Research Station for his notes).

Winiarski’s proposition was that while terroir plays a big role, the end result also depends on what the winemaker does with the grapes he gets, a sort of vinous “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

“You can’t help making regional wines,” Winiarski said to Kyle Schlachter of the Colorado Wine Press blog. “That’s the region (substitute ‘terroir’) they’re grown in. They will betray their origins some way or another.”

“Betraying your origins” sounds like terroir.

When wine writer David White of The Terroirist blog wrote that terroir is “omnipresent in wine marketing,” he was not being complimentary.

It’s over-used, White said, “to signify the relation of wine to soil and climate where that relation is essentially uninteresting (and sometimes) used to obfuscate the hard reality of overt flaws like Brett infection.”

What’s more, he said, “The vast majority of claims made about terroir in the wine world are, frankly, bogus. This does not in any way mean, however, that terroir is not an ideal worth pursuing.”

When I first started getting serious about Colorado wine, I had the feeling that many Colorado winemakers were trying hardest to re-create that special wine which may have sparked their initial interest in winemaking or simply trying to satisfy a market that had nothing on which to base a definition of Colorado wines except wines from elsewhere.

Those days are over, for the most part, helped greatly by winemakers gaining two decades of experience in the vineyards and with the grapes they were getting.

We’ll talk more next time about what makes a Colorado wine a Colorado wine.

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Grape vines pushing out in the new-found heat of summer

The sudden burst of tropic heat arriving in mid-June was just what Colorado’s wine-grape growers were waiting for.

New tendrils on a Merlot vine at Whitewater Hill Vineyards. The long tips show vigorous growth but they are starting to brown, indicating the plant is turning more energy to fruit production and not new growth.

New tendrils on a Merlot vine at Whitewater Hill Vineyards. The long tips show vigorous growth but they are starting to brown, indicating the plant is turning more energy to fruit production and not new growth.

A cool and wetter-than-normal May restored ground moisture to the point many farmers just now are turning their irrigation water into the vineyards and the awakening plants took advantage of the wet conditions to store energy for the summer growing season.

Now that growing season has arrived.

“This is fabulous,” said an obviously pleased Nancy Janes of Whitewater Hill Vineyards and Winery on 32 Road near Grand Junction. “We’re a little behind in development but that’s nothing to worry about, we’ll catch up during the summer.”

On the other side of Grand Mesa, Yvon Gros of Leroux Creek Vineyards was saying his vines of cold-hearty hybrids Chambourcin and Cayuga are redolent with tiny yellow flowers, a sign of a very healthy crop.

“I was walking through the vineyard today and I stopped because I could smell something,” he said. “It was the florescence, the flowering of the vines. It’s a sign that the plants are gearing up for the growing season.”

Gros and his wife Joanna were taking a brief rest during the winery’s Friday dinner marking North Fork Uncorked, a wine-centric celebration of the West Elks AVA, and Joanna paused to remark about how vibrant the vineyard is.

“It’s been years since I’ve seen it so green,” she marveled and pointed to the long, emerald ribbons stretching downslope in front of the inn. “Yvon has been working hard in the vineyard and now this is the result.”

A young cluster of flowers and tiny new grapes. By summers end, given favorable conditions, the cluster will ripen evenly.

A young cluster of flowers and tiny new grapes. By summers end, given favorable conditions, the cluster will ripen evenly.

When I asked Nancy Janes if the near-constant rain in May was a drawback, she said there initially was some concern about powdery mildew, something moister climates deal with on a regular basis but something seen infrequently in dry western Colorado.

“Wet weather like that isn’t common here but it’s not something we can’t deal with,” she said. “But the plants really are happy to see it warm up.”

Yvon Gros said his vines were “growing like crazy” in the sudden heat.

“Some of the tendrils are 4 to 6 inches long,” he said with delight.

In the vineyard at Whitewater Hill, Janes clutched a vine to show a visitor delicate tendrils of new growth, soft green curls stretching iwell beyond the apical leaf of the vine.

“You see how long and fresh these are? That’s a sign the vine still is sending a lot of energy into growth,” she said. She grabbed another vine and noted the tendrils were starting to die back a little.

“This one is starting to focus its energy on producing fruit and not growth,” she said. “You can see how here we have flowers as well as clusters of green, pepper corn-size grapes.”

She paused and looked down the tidy rows, far different from the wild growth of recent years when vines went unclipped, still recovering from killing freezes in 2013 and 2014.

“It’s great to see the vineyard in shape and looking good,” she said. “Last year we hardly did any pruning at all and it was a jungle but this year John (Behrs, her husband and business partner) and the crews have been working almost constantly retraining and reshaping the vines.”

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The fruits of summer

Mid-June and the year’s first crop of serviceberries is ready for harvest.

Ripe serviceberries are deep purple but the lighter berries also are edible.

Ripe serviceberries are deep purple but the lighter berries also are edible. Berries ripen from early June through August.

A member of the rose family, which includes crabapples, cherries, plums, and peaches, the early ripening berries are the size of blueberries and taste a bit grainy and earthy with a hint of dark-berry sweetness.

The berries ripen from June through August, and there are several places I monitor in the nearby mountains where it’s not uncommon to be picking late-summer serviceberries and have competition from black bears enjoying the same crop.

The shrubs, which left untrimmed may grow into small trees, are common in the mountains of Colorado and the West and regional variations are found nearly everywhere. The white blooms appear in early spring, “when the shad runs” according to some legends, which is said to be the root of their other common names shadbush and shadblow.

The shrub’s name has several interesting although unlikely etymologies. One says it was so named because the bush blooms in mid-April, when the roads became clear of snow and allowed the resumption of long-delayed church services. And yet another story says the bush was named because its blooming indicates the ground has thawed enough to allow for graves to be dug and burial services held for people who had died during the winter.

Other common names include sarvisberry, saskatoonberry (it’s said the Saskatchewan city was named after the shrub), wild plum, Alleghany serviceberry and Pacific serviceberry.

The shrubs may reach 20 feet or more and I trim the shrub in my yard every couple of years to keep it manageable. Also, the shrub in my yard blooms twice a year, so I frequently get a both a spring and a fall crop of serviceberries.

The berries are good for nibbling, to put on yogurt and ice cream and also can be dried, frozen and used for jellies, muffins and other uses.

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Hot Summer Days – Sauvignon Blanc

The wine-growing region of Marlborough on New Zealand's South Island is famed for its Sauvignon Blanc, which makes up 86 percent of New Zealand's wine exports.

The wine-growing region of Marlborough on New Zealand’s South Island is famed for its Sauvignon Blanc, which makes up 86 percent of New Zealand’s wine exports. Courtesy photo

International Sauvignon Blanc Day was April 24 and if you missed it, the weather has caught up with the calendar and you can have your own ISB Day celebration with a wine that’s perfect for warm-weather get-togethers.

Sauvignon Blanc is French in origin but the versatile grape is so popular you can find bottlings from most wine-making areas. The wine shows a range of styles capable of reflecting the terroir of growing regions and offers a zingy acidity as its signature calling card.

Styles vary from the crisp, citrusy flavors (lemon, lime and grapefruit, with a touch of grassiness) of white Bordeaux and Sancerre of the Loire Valley to New Zealand’s cut grass, gooseberry and grapefruit notes with mouth-watering acidity. According to the New Zealand wine website, Sauvignon Blanc makes up 72 percent of the wine produced in the country and 86 percent of the wine exported.

In California, the wine can range from the tropical fruit, citrus and passion fruit similar to that found in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to the less-angular, oak-influenced notes (an ode to Robert Mondavi) of melons and pineapples.

All three styles can have more or less crisp minerality depending on the winemaking techniques (stainless steel vs. oak barrels) and fermentation temperatures. Here are a few I sampled recently.

Mouton Cadet 2012 Bourdeaux Sauvignon Blanc – Grown in the Entre-Deux-Mers region of Bordeaux where the predominately limestone soils give the wine a crisp minerality and well-balanced notes of pineapple, apricot, citrus and white peach, the mildest of the peach flavors. About $10 (sample). Imported by Constellation Wines US, San Francisco, Cal.

Nobilo Icon 2012 Sauvignon Blanc – According to the winery, 2012 was a classic cool-climate vintage, providing extra hang time for generous fruit flavors and the Icon’s dependable minerality. Grapes for the 2012 blend came from Nobilo’s vineyards in the cooler Awatere Valley (flinty minerality), the warmer Upper Wairau Valley (texture or mouthfeel), and Rapaura (passion fruit, citrus zest) subregions of Marlborough. Notes of green pepper with a hint of jalapeño and lemon zest on the nose and citrus, gooseberry and stony minerality on the palate. $20 (sample).

The Nobilo Regional Collection is from grapes selected from various Wairau and Awatere vineyards. It has notes of pineapple and guava on the nose and ripe tropical fruits and pineapple in the mouth. A well-balanced acidity and long finish add to the wine’s appeal. $11 (sample).

Kim Crawford 2014 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – The grapes for this wine come from the well-drained alluvial soils of Marlborough’s neighboring Wairua and Awatere valleys, home to some of New Zealand’s best South Island Sauvignon Blancs. This 2014 shows crisp acidity and complex range of cut grass and fruit flavors (melon, pineapple, grapefruit, lemon zest and passon fruit) we’ve always enjoyed in Kim Crawford’s wines. About $15 (sample).

SeaGlass Sauvignon Blanc 2013 – Vineyards in the cool Central Coast growing area of Santa Barbara County allows slow ripening and the development of complex tropical flavors with the grape’s characteristic crisp acidity. $11 (purchased). Information here.

Hot Summer Days – The series continues

Hot time, summer in the city (and everywhere else). The season begs for casual, outdoors entertaining, and that means sharing meals with family and friends at the park, the beach or simply at home on the patio.

Summer dining is dominated by well-chilled crisp white wines and our occasional series on summer wines will get back to those next time.

But if you’re a red-wine lover, summer can be the cruelest season, indeed. Red drinkers often cringe when it comes to summer dining since many people are reluctant or don’t know how to serve red wine in the summer and a 90-degree day normally isn’t conducive to sipping a warm, full-bodied red.

The Marchesi dé Frescobaldi Rémole 2013 is perfect for summer dining. Served slightly chilled, it's bright flavors match well with casual seasonal dining.

The Marchesi dé Frescobaldi Rémole 2013 is perfect for summer dining. Served slightly chilled, it’s bright flavors match well with casual seasonal dining.

The answers are easy.

A slightly chilled red (yes, it’s OK to do that) is a fine thing in the summer and one wine sure to please the red-crazed masses (and your pocket book) is Marchesi dé Frescobaldi’s Remole, a Toscana IGT blend of Sangiovese (85 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon (15 percent) with layered aromas of cherries, cranberries, watermelon and spice.

This affordable ($10 MSRP!) is an easy drinking and surprisingly elegant wine that is a favorite for casual entertaining.

The Frescobaldi family history goes back more 1,000 years in Florence and more than 700 years and 30 generations in the Remole area east of Florence.

It’s there, so family legend holds, that sometime in the 1300s poet Dino Frescobaldi smuggled parts of the “Divine Comedy” to another Dante, this one Dante Aligheri, thereby enabling Aligheri to finish his epic masterpiece.

By the 1400s, Frescobaldi wines were being served at the tables of the Papal Court and Henry VIII.

Since then, Frascobaldi wines have continued to win honors and encomia and today the Frescobaldi family makes a wide range of wines, including some of their finest in partnership with the Robert Mondavi family.

The versatile Remole is a terrific pairing for summer barbecue when served slightly chilled (15-20 minutes in the refrigerator is enough), the wine’s bright fruity notes of plum, red raspberry and cherries (retained by hand-picking and four months stainless steel) highlighting the black-sweet fire-char of grilled meats.

And at only 12 percent alcohol, the wine won’t bring an early end to the good times.

Remole Toscana IGT, by Marchesi dé Frescobaldi (professional sample)

Sangiovese 85%, Cabernet Sauvignon 15%

Price: $10

Frescobaldi wines are available widely this summer at Milan’s Expo 2015.

Information: http://www.frescobaldi.it

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Warren Winiarski: Colorado wines “show a completeness.”

DENVER – A curious thing happened last week during the Colorado Governor’s Wine Competition: The judges argued amongst themselves.

What makes this remarkable is that one, this was a regional wine competition, something not often host to strong opinions, and second, among those people stating their cases was renowned Napa winemaker Warren Winiarski, famous as the California winemaker whose Stag’s Leap Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon bested the best French wines at the 1976 Judgment of Paris, turning the wine world on its head.

Warren Winiarski holds a bottle of the 1968 Ivancie Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine he created for Gerald Ivancie and Colorado’s first post-Prohibition commercial winery. Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Cellars, is renowned as the winner of the 1976 Judgment of Paris.

Warren Winiarski holds a bottle of the 1968 Ivancie Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine he created for Gerald Ivancie and Colorado’s first post-Prohibition commercial winery. Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Cellars, is renowned as the winner of the 1976 Judgment of Paris.

What Winiarski was asserting last weekend was not whether the Colorado wines were any good – that fact already having been established in earlier rounds – but whether two unoaked Chardonnays both were deserving of a Double Gold.

“I think the wines shows great balance and wonderful winemaking skills,” Winiarski said, turning in his seat to face the 14 other judges perched around the sensory lab at Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Hospitality Learning Center. “This is the kind of winemaking we should be encouraging in Colorado.”

Winiarski, not surprisingly, won that particular battle and several others during the daylong judging of 190 Colorado wines (a separate judging was held a week earlier for meads, ciders and fruit wines).

The judging was to pick the best of Colorado wines and among those standouts a final 12 wines to include in the Governor’s Case, a collection of top wines used for marketing purposes.

CWB-104 Identity Exploration-Mark_R6_ColorA complete list of the medal winners will appear here when the list is released by the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. (You can read Wine Curmudgeon Jeff Siegel’s view of the competition here.)

Winiarski was impressed enough by the wines presented during the recent tasting to push for several Double-Gold wines and a fat handful of gold medals to other wines.

“The Colorado wine industry continues to grow and improve and I’m quite pleased with what I’ve seen and tasted this year,” he said during a break in the judging. “The wines have come a long way, even since last year, and I think show a completeness that comes when the winemakers are figuring it out.”

Winiarski, 84, perhaps is best known in Colorado for being the winemaker behind the Ivancie Cellars label, which nearly 50 years ago became the first post-Prohibition commercial winery in Colorado.

Winiarski was working for Robert Mondavi in Napa and thinking he needed a change when he was approached by Ivancie in his quest to bring wine to middle America.

Winiarski turned out several vintages of Ivancie Cellars wine but returned to California in 1970 when he realized the demand for Colorado wine was not as strong as Ivancie’s desire to make it and Winiarski sensed the future wasn’t long for the winery, which closed in 1974.

The wines were good, he said, but “the idea just never caught fire.

“We underestimated how difficult making wine in Colorado was going to be,” a sentiment echoed even today by every winemaker in Colorado.

One of the weekend’s highlights came during dinner the second night when three of Ivancie’s children – Molly, Tom and Steve – made an unexpected appearance (Gerald Ivancie lives in Denver but wasn’t able to attend). Winiarski clearly was delighted and touched to see the threesome and they shared many poignant memories about those early days of Colorado winemaking.

At one point, the three Ivancies presented Winiarski with a precious bottle of the 1968 Ivancie Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, and he cuddled the still-dark wine like a newborn baby.

“This is wonderful, marvelous,” he said. “Gerald (Ivancie) had such a great love of wine and I think he would be pleased to see where his dream has gone.”

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