Magazine article Sunset

Grand Valley, Colorado: Here Comes T. Red

Magazine article Sunset

Grand Valley, Colorado: Here Comes T. Red

Article excerpt

Check your wine snobbery at the door when you visit Colorado's Grand Valley wineries. The region's anything-but-stuffy attitude shows up right away on the names of some of the wines. Plum Creek Cellars's winemaker, Erik Bruner, is a former geologic engineer, co-owner Sue Phillips a rockhound: They named Plum Creek's Bordeaux-style red Redstone, after the iron-stained basalt near the winery.

The sense of fun prevails even on some wine labels, like those for Carlson Vineyards: A dinosaur raises a wineglass on a bottle of Tyrannosaurus Red (a bow to dig sites nearby); a cheerful rodent wears a grape-leaf crown on a bottle of Prairie Dog White. "Wine is something to have fun with," claims Mary Carlson, the vineyard's co-owner. Standing beside a stuffed jackalope (the mythical antlered jackrabbit of postcard fame), she says, "We're not pretentious. But we are serious about quality in this region."

For a winery to survive in the Grand Valley, it has to be serious at least part of the time - notably when it comes to grape growing. This sere land of mesas and buttes hard by the Colorado-Utah border is among the highest and most challenging wine-grape growing regions in the world. Altitude ranges from 4,600 to more than 5,000 feet, so bud-killing spring frosts are an annual threat. Rainfall varies from pitiful to ridiculous (6 to 9 inches annually). In winter, the dormant grapevines must sometimes endure temperatures down to -8 [degrees].

There hadn't been wine grapes grown here since Prohibition, but in 1974, Colorado State University began researching the area's vineyard potential. "For wine-grape growers, this is no place for wimps," says former CSU viticulturist Rick Hamman. But Hamman is quick to point out the area's pluses. Its low humidity reduces grape-mold problems. During August and September, when grapes mature, temperatures can swing 30 [degrees]. That means the day's high heat helps grapes build sugar, while the extremely cool nights help them retain good acidity. The result, when everything is ideal: a fruity, crisp wine.

A few years after its research began, CSU's work bore fruit, and the winery now known as Colorado Cellars swung open its doors. Now the Grand Valley is home to seven wineries (six open to the public). Vineyards spread over 263 acres.

Growers largely stick to the basics: Chardonnay and Merlot are the dominant varietals. But winemakers aren't afraid of stretching the region's potential. Among their efforts: honey wine (Rocky Mountain Meadery), Rhone varietals (Grande River), sparkling wine (Colorado Cellars), and Gewurztraminer and fruit wines (Carlson Vineyards). …

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