European wine venues remind me a little of Colorado wine, food and tourism industries

The Colorado Statesman

A large portion of lifestyle writing involves spending time where relevant products are produced and consumed. For me, this has usually meant traveling to wine country, which i loosely define as anywhere wine grapes are grown or processed. I was recently privileged to enjoy five weeks in Europe. I spent the first two weeks on wine-focused press trips to Tuscany’s Chianti Classico in northwest Italy, and the Burgenland, Austria, just outside of Vienna before meeting my wife Yaël in Dublin for three weeks of Ireland, Scotland and England.


Each destination connected to and contrasted with what i know of colorado’s wine, food, and tourism industries in varying ways. But for the purposes of this column i’ll focus solely on the first week, which started in florence, the capital of tuscany. There i met up with a social media-centric group of bloggers and online video experts united by their love of fine wine. In addition to former coloradan rick bakas, (www.rickbakas.com, tw/g+ bakasmedia) i was joined by monique soltani (www.wineoh.tv, fb/tw wineohtv), ian white (www.7x7.com, tw 7x7), and ron holden (cornichon.org, tw ronaldholden, fb ronald.holden1). We were all guests of the consorzio vino chianti classico (www.chianticlassico.com) and balzac communications (www.balzac.com), invited to cover a series of festivals in the hill country of this often misunderstood region.

The Chianti Classico territory covers about 173,000 acres of vineyards in the area between Florence and Siena and produces around 2.9 million cases of Chianti Classico per year.

Regional Diversity
Chianti Classico can best be described as the donut hole in Tuscany’s Chianti, an exclusive area in the middle of a lesser region that represents wine under slightly different laws, with perhaps a bit higher alcohol and often more oak influence. But these characteristics are merely an expression of specific terroir, of grapes that are grown in a place where the weather, climate and soil allow longer fruit hang-time, bolder flavors and just more oomph. Calling Classico anything else (including plain old Chianti) is not only missing the point of micro-regional wine; it is also inaccurate.

The vineyards in the Grand Valley on the Western Slope.

We have similar divisions in Colorado. The Grand Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) runs along the Colorado River (once called the Grand River), forty miles east of the Utah border. It begins at Palisade, where the mouth of DeBeque Canyon opens onto the valley floor, and then spills onto East Orchard and Orchard Mesas on the south bank of the river, stretching to the foot of the Colorado National Monument west of Grand Junction. The Grand Valley gets as much summer sunshine as the Napa Valley, Tuscany or Bordeaux, but in a shorter period of time. So the chalky, south-facing Bookcliff Mountains are especially hospitable to syrah, viognier, and other Rhône varieties, as well as Spain’s tempranillo and Bordeaux’s cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot, and malbec.

Ben Weinberg poses in a barrel cellar in Castello di Volpaia. The winery is located in the medieval village of Volpaia. Depending on the wine, malolactic fermentation and aging occur in either 800-gallon Slovenian or French oak casks or in 60-gallon French oak barrels.

The West Elks AVA follows the North Fork of the Gunnison River from the old mining town of Bowie through Paonia and Hotchkiss until it reaches the “dobies,” a set of ghostly, adobe-like features that separate Delta and the Uncompahgre Range from the fertile basin at the foot of the West Elk Mountains. Elevations from 5,400 to 7,000 feet mean that the growing season starts about two weeks later and has 30 percent fewer days between last spring and first fall frost than the Grand Valley. Consequently, West Elks features many central European varieties such as riesling, pinot gris, and pinot noir.

The famous cathedral dome dominates the skyline of Florence with its eight white ribs against a background of terracotta tiles.
Photos by John Weinberg/The Colorado Statesman

Several additional Colorado growing areas also produce grapes and other fruit for wine, although they have not been designated as AVAs, mostly because they have not yet demonstrated any significant commonality of expression and quality.

Tourist Infrastructure
Back in Tuscany, my group participated in a seminar held in the town of Radda in Chianti, “Sangiovese or Sangiovese?” where during a blind tasting we compared the terroirs, grapes and wines of Montalcino and Radda. Tasting wine without seeing the label can be humbling, and the best part of this event was the loud disagreement as to each wine’s identity before the unveilings, even amongst the residents of Radda.

I then helped judge the Homemakers’ Trophy at the Santa Maria al Prato Convent in Radda, where Chianti housewives vied in a cook-off of regionally typical dishes. I also enjoyed a wild dinner in Panzano at Officina della Bistecca with Dario Cecchini, the rock-star butcher who taught Mario Batali’s father how to cut up cows. The portions were as enormous as the flavors produced by Dario’s herd that he keeps happy in Spain. As only Dario can say, “to beef or not to beef, that is the question!”

In comparison, the Western Slope’s tourism infrastructure seems relatively primitive, especially when placed in the context of a place like Chianti Classico. I realize that fly fishing and mountain music festivals are a large part of what makes Colorado special. But there are only a few nice hotels anywhere near Grand Junction and even fewer terrific restaurants. Most eateries focus on rustic proteins, river fish and root vegetables, comforting to be sure but to my taste simply too monotonous to support high-end wine tourism at the top level.

How Do We Make this Work?
I’m already running out of room and haven’t even gotten to my adventures in Austria or the U.K.! Obviously, I’ll have to take this up again at a later date. In the meantime, I suggest you sign up for some of the Twitter and Facebook feeds mentioned above. Once you are engaged with the personalities behind the feeds, don’t be afraid to demand from them greater accountability, access and information.
Finally, don’t forget to try some of the excellent Italian wines I’ve listed below. Even if they’re not from Colorado, they’re still damn good.

Tasting Notes
(750mL bottles unless otherwise indicated)

Sparkling
Montenisa Franciacorta Dizero Blanc de Blancs (Lombardy, Italy) $40
Smelling of yellow apple and sunshine while tasting of pear and nectarine, this intense, very fruity wine is perfect with small, traditionally Italian appetizers.

White
Villa Calcinaia Comitale Bianco IGT 2012 (Tuscany, Italy) $16
Bright yellow, this brings forth yellow peach, fennel, and slate on the nose. Sweet apricot and lemonade lines the moderately acidic finish.

Rosé
Luiano Toscana Rosato 2012 (Tuscany, Italy) $20
A mélange of pink-orange hue, cinnamon candy nose, and bitter lemon and rose water finish that is of high intensity but only moderately long.

Reds
Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico DOCG 2009 (Tuscany, Italy) $20
Reddish-blue, with chamomile scents and a red raspberry and plum palate that ends smooth and serene.

Fonterutoli Chianti Classico DOCG 2010 (Tuscany, Italy) $29
An inky, black-purple surprise where cedar, red currant, cola, citrus zest, and lavender all take turns on the stage.

Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2008 (Tuscany, Italy) $44
Dusty and red, with an aroma of wild strawberry and hints of sweet red raspberry, malt, and black current on the tongue.

Cantine Leonardo da Vinci Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2008 (Tuscany, Italy) $52
Dusty red and nosing smoky red cherry, this tastes of dark chocolate, cola and black pepper on a long, deep, harmonious finish.

Dessert
Castello d’Albola Vin Santo 2003 (Tuscany, Italy) $60/500mL
Deeply amber, nosing apricot and lemon zest and tasting of apricot and candied lemon peel.

Certified sommelier and unfilteredunfined.com editor-in-chief Ben Weinberg, JD, MBA, pens Weinberg’s Wine Tech in Sommelier Journal and has written for the Daily Beast, Worth Magazine, The World of Fine Wine, Wine Enthusiast, and The Tasting Panel Magazine, where he is the Rocky Mountain Editor. He also leads luxurious, behind-the-scenes tours of the world’s most famous wine regions via WineOnTheRoad.com. Ben can be reached at BentheWineBerg@coloradostatesman.com