Last week I joined 36 other eager grape pickers to spend a day harvesting Chambourcin grapes for my friendly winemaker Yvon Gros of Leroux Creek Vineyards, which is near (sort of, within 8 miles or so) of Hotchkiss, Colorado.
Hotchkiss is a small (pop. about 1,000) farmer/rancher town in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado. The entire valley is rapidly changing as well-to-do folks retire elsewhere and discover the joys of living in a small friendly town where land prices still are reasonable. You can meet someone who looks as if they’ve spent their entire life on a farm and it turns out they’re a retired nuclear scientist, former university prof or well-known author or musician, all of which I’ve met in the past few years.
In recent years, the North Fork Valley has become known for its growing wine industry, and valley’s 11 wineries compose the entirety of the West Elks American Viticultural Area.
Yvon and his wife Joanna about six years ago started the Leroux Creek Inn, a B&B, spa and winery. True to his roots (Yvon is a trained executive chef and hails from Provence), Yvon planted French hybrid grapes, Chambourcin and Cayuga.I don’t know of any other winemaker in Colorado growing either hybrid, although the hybrids are popular in the Midwest and East, where the climate calls for winter-hardy grapes. After so many Colorado grape growers were struck down by a series of intense frosts and deep winter cold that began last December, Yvon this year is particularly enamored with his Chambourcin, a red grape that produces a dark-red, fruity wine sometimes used as a blend to soften the intensity of a big Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.
But he was surprised during the Colorado Mountain Winefest in September that it wasn’t his Chambourcin, Cayuga, Merlot or Chardonnay that proved to be the crowd favorite but rather his 2009 unfiltered Pinot Gris.
He wasn’t expecting so much demand for the Pinot Gris and only made 15 cases, most of which sold in one day at Colorado Mountain Winefest. Now, he’s hoarding the last of the Pinot Gris, selling it only at the winery tasting room and occasionally doling out a bit for friends. He generously opened a few bottles during our mid-day break while harvesting and said he regrets not making more since the vineyard the Pinot Gris came from was killed off in an April frost.
“There won’t be anymore for a while, until the vines come back,” lamented Yvon. “I was surprised at how popular this was because many people don’t like unfiltered wines.”
Americans generally want their wines, red and white, crystal clear, without the sediment and small particles seen in unfiltered wines. But fans of unfiltered wines, and you can count Yvon and this writer among them, say filtering wines strips out the flavors while unfiltered wines have more character, better flavors and a more-luscious mouthfeel than do filtered wines.
Which make sense – If you leave those all those small particles in the wine, they add weight and increased texture to the finished wine.
In an article in the San Francisco Examiner, Saint Helena (Cal.) winemaker Chris Millard compared filtered and unfiltered wines to drip coffee vs. French press coffee. “In a nutshell, leaving the wine in a natural state and using gravity to it settle out we get a richer, more intense wine that is balanced naturally,” Millard said. “The important difference is that drip coffee has oils that add structure and you cannot get that balance running it through a filter.”
In their efforts to produce a clear wine, winemakers fine and filter wines in a variety of ways, including micropore paper filters, membrane filters and sending the wine through a filtering agent such as diatomaceous earth or cellulose powder. Fining is sending a coagulating medium (egg whites, bentonite) through the wine which attracts the sediment which in turn falls out of the wine.
But clarity is not the only reason to filter a wine. There’s also the concern that an unfiltered wine might still contain live yeast, which may cause unwanted secondary fermentations in the bottle. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of stories of home winemakers waking in the night to the sound of corks exploding out of bottles after their unfiltered wines restarted fermentation.
But winemakers can (almost) clarify their wines without using filters. Racking (siphoning the wine from one barrel to another, leaving the sediment behind), cold stabilizing and other Old-World techniques are effective in killing off the yeast and getting rid of much of the unwanted sediment. There still will be some particles left in the wine, and Yvon is happy to see them.
“Look at that,” he said, holding up a glass of his Pinot Gris and letting the late-October sun illuminate the hazy wine. “There are so many layers of flavors in that glass.”
There’s also a bit of fizz, indicative that not all the yeast succumbed. But that’s OK, too, he said.
“I like that, it’s like a real <a href="“>Vouvray,” he said with a smile.
Several Colorado winemakers make unfiltered wines. Eames Peterson crafts his elegant and unfiltered Pinot Noir and Syrah in Paonia and he constantly is racking his wines, tranferring some of them four or five time. He, too, prefers the taste and presence of an unfiltered wine and has never had any problem with unwanted fermentations.
There’s also the pragmatic reasons for not filtering a wine. Neal Guard and Diane Brown of Avant Vineyards don’t filter their wine because A) they like unfiltered wines and B), they don’t want to spend several thousand dollars on a filter.
“I probably wouldn’t filter my wines, anyway, because I really like unfiltered wines” said Neal last summer, “but it doesn’t matter because I can’t afford a filter.”
Saturday was spent at Leroux Creek Vineyards clipping ripe Chambourcin grapes and trying not to cut myself with the clippers I recently sharpened. It’s harvest time for winemaker Yvon Gros and each fall he summons friends and family (this year his brother Joel came over from the Eagle River Valley) to pick his 5 acres or so of Chambourcin, a red-grape hybrid that does well in Colorado’s cool climate.
Yvon and his wife Joanna own and operate the Leroux Creek Inn and Spa, a classic French-style B&B reflecting Yvon’s roots in Provence and Joanna’s warm hospitality. Leroux Creek Vineyards typically produces two hybrid-grape wines, Chambourcin (red) and Cayuga (white) in addition to Chardonnay and Merlot. Yvon grows the Chambourcin and Cayuga and gets his other grapes from local growers.
Hybrids aren’t as delicate as the vinifera grapes (you know, the familiar European varietals such as Merlot, Cab Sauvignon, Chardonnay, etc.) and among other advantages manage to hold up to the early fall frosts and late spring frosts that kill the other grapes. This year that was important, as Yvon was able to make wine after many local wineries (he’s in the West Elks AVA along the North Fork of the Gunnison River) were struck by a spring frost that destroyed their grapes.
Maybe some of it was luck, though. Dick Noonamaker, a grape grower a few miles away in Cedaredge, lost all of his Pinot Gris and Merlot this spring when an April frost dropped temperatures in his vineyard to 28 degrees for several hours. Noonamaker said the frost came at the worst possible time for his grapes.
“If it had come a week earlier or a week later, the grapes wouldn’t have been so affected,” said Noonamaker. “Or if it had lasted only one hour instead of four, I might have saved some grapes.”
Yvon, however, said the temperature never got cold enough at his vineyard to harm his grapes.
The loss of the Pinot Gris means Yvon won’t be able to repeat the delightful 2009 Pinot Gris he made from Noonamaker’s grapes. Unfiltered, with a bit of a light fizz on the back of the palate, this fruity and floral Pinot Gris was totally Alsatian in style, “like a Vouvray,” Yvon remarked.
But not filtering a wine has its dangers, including leaving some live yeast in the wine that may start a second fermentation at the most unexpected moments. Like, when your storing the wine in your basement.
More than one home winemaker who hasn’t completely fermented his wine or didn’t cold-shock it enough to kill the yeast has woken in the night to sound of exploding corks deep in his cellar.
And although Yvon said he had fermented the Pinot Gris far enough there wouldn’t be any problem, I noticed he was very careful when opening the bottles.
“I really like that style of wine but you have to be careful you don’t blow out a cork,” he said. He took sip of the straw-gold wine. “This is really good, very nice.”
He didn’t make much of the Pinot Gris, about 15 cases he said, and he nearly sold out his supply when the wine proved to be a crowd favorite at Colorado Mountain Winefest in September.
“I was surprised it sold so well, I almost haven’t anything left,” he said, although he managed to find a few bottles to serve his hot and hungry grape pickers for a mid-day pick-up.
He had picked his Cayuga a week before and 37 of us part-time pickers had his Chambourcin picked and in the bin by sundown.
Most of the pickers left after the splendid afternoon meal, which included pit-roasted lamb, a selection of salads including garden-fresh tomatoes, sauteed carrots and young squash, and plenty of crisp, hot-from-the-oven French bread.
Plus lots of wine, which might be why so many pickers went home for a nap after a morning of working in the hot Colorado sun.
I just stuck a couple more bandages on my wounds and plugged on. I figured the Chambourcin was enough to replace whatever little blood I lost.