Growing grapes in Colorado

The Colorado Statesman

In keeping with our salute to National Agriculture Day we decided to highlight the big picture of the grape-growing industry in the state of Colorado.

The Colorado wine industry is relatively significant to the state’s agritourism business. People come from all over the world to experience our various landscapes, including our vineyards, by car, bicycle and even on foot.

There are five major regions that grow grapes in Colorado: Grand Valley, which boasts 75 percent of the state’s wineries, the Rocky Mountains, the Front Range, the Four Corners region, as well as Delta and Montrose counties.

There is a major difference between a vineyard and a winery. Not everyone knows that. You grow grapes in a vineyard, hence the words ‘vine’ and ‘yard.’ Wine is made in a ‘winery,’ where the winemakers might source grapes elsewhere, even from outside the state if necessary. Of course, many times you see both a vineyard and a winery inhabiting the same place. If you drive past a vineyard in Colorado and see a sign that says, ‘winery,’ then they make their own wine, and I suggest you pull over for a tasting.

There are five major regions that grow grapes in Colorado: Grand Valley, which boasts 75 percent of the state’s wineries, the Rocky Mountains, the Front Range, the Four Corners region, as well as Delta and Montrose counties.
Photo by Dan Coffey

Once it was discovered that certain areas in Colorado had the perfect climate for growing grapes (warm days and cool nights), vineyards were planted with grapes that would grow best in each region. Not every type of grape can be planted just anywhere and thrive. For example, Zinfandel cannot be grown in Colorado, but does very well in California.

Colorado has a diverse range of microclimates, which are local atmospheric zones where the climate differs from the surrounding area. This allows grape growers to match the right grapes to each particular vineyard site.

Cabernet Sauvignon does better in warmer areas, needs a longer growing season and produces fruit rich in color and flavor. It is one of the most widely planted grapes. It has a thick skin and is resistant to many insects. Cabernet can be high in tannins, which is what seems to suck much of the moisture from your mouth when you taste it, therefore it is often mixed with Merlot for drinkability. I like the Cabernets from the urban Denver area Balistreri Vineyards and also Spero Winery, both of whom source most of their fruit from vineyards out on the western slope.

Heartier varieties like Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay work well in cooler areas. However, outside its homeland of Germany, the Riesling grape has the ability to maintain its acids in warmer climates, and it ripens to a level that could never be achieved in Germany. This may be why it grows so well in Colorado. Many wineries in the state produce a Riesling, and I haven’t tasted a bad one yet! My favorites are from Jack Rabbit Hill, Two Rivers, and Garrett Estate Cellars.

I spoke to Guy Drew of Guy Drew Vineyards, and he said that though last year’s crop was not good (there was major frost that killed most of the grapes on the Western Slope, affecting most wineries), he expects a full crop this year. In terms of revenue that the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board received from wine sales, “January this year was the highest we’ve ever had. We are ahead of last year in revenue.” It’s difficult to acquire accurate numbers since the fiscal year ends in June, but Drew is confident that this will be a very good year for Colorado wine and happily said of his own vineyards, “It’s looking good. I’m psyched.”

In terms of the actual farming practices dealing with grapes and other crops, there are several ways in which to grow grapes, and all are practiced right here in Colorado. There is of course, traditional farming. It’s interesting that before chemical pesticides and all this new farming technology existed, organic farming was the tradition. But these things needed to be invented to keep up with demand for crops in general. Traditional farming as we know it today includes these things.

The ‘new’ type of farming is ‘organic,’ which of course, usually costs more to produce, and is less available. This is certainly true when it comes to wine grapes. Some vineyards and wineries consider themselves ‘natural’ and try to use as few chemicals and insecticides as possible, but they are not considered ‘organic.’ It’s a particular certification not loosely thrown about. Sounds confusing, but I hope to explain it a bit further.

Organic grapes must be grown on land that has not been exposed to these ingredients for a specified number of years. Grapes are usually one of the most heavily sprayed crops, which is the reason for the time it takes for a farm to be considered organic. The main variable in organic farming is the soil, which must be kept healthy.

Organic wine is usually not produced on a massive scale. According to Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, “You almost never find an organic wine.” Vintners try to avoid the use of sulfur dioxide, though it is natural (but still a preservative) in filtering wine. Also, cultured yeast is not required since it is normally only added to grapes that have been sprayed with insecticides that kill wild yeast.

Wine called biodynamic is meant to be in harmony with nature and the local ecosystem as a whole. The farms are usually self-sustaining, using only what is produced on the land where the grapes are grown. Natural fertilizers are used, and nothing is added from off the farm to make the wine. Additives are never used to change the taste of the wine produced by these grapes, and owners of Jack Rabbit Hill winery in Hotchkiss, Lance and Anna Hanson, say that they just “let it be what it is,” since the grapes are meant to “speak for themselves.” They almost never go wrong. Jack Rabbit Hill is the only Demeter-certified biodynamic winery in the state of Colorado, a high honor not easy to achieve.

When I spoke to Caskey, one of my most vigilant and trusted sources, he said there are only a handful of organic vineyards, mostly in the Hotchkiss area. He clarified that biodynamic, though it is a more stringent type of certification for farmers, is not necessarily organic. Also, wines “made from organic grapes don’t always produce organic wine.” Winemaking is a separate practice. If organic grapes are made into wine and yeast is added, for example, the label can say it was made with organic grapes, but it is not organic wine per se.

The differences are subtle to the average consumer, but this information will surely impress your friends at the next dinner party. So pop open a bottle of some Jack Rabbit or Two Rivers, and enjoy the spring. And try to make one of Colorado’s amazing winefests and learn directly from the winemakers themselves!