Tasha Brandstatter on July 7, 2016 1 Comment When you think of the best place to grow wine grapes, you probably don’t think of Colorado, and who can blame you–bisected by mountains with high desert plains at the east and high desert mesas to the west, Colorado should not have the climate and precipitation for successful viticulture. And yet, the state has been producing award-winning wines for over forty years. Where do the grapes for those wines come from? Colorado has two designated AVAs–American Viticultural Areas–but the vast majority, between 75 and 80 percent, come from the Grand Valley. About four hours west of Denver, the Grand Valley follows the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers running east to west from Palisade to Fruita. The largest city and the Valley’s cultural hub, Grand Junction, has a population of about 60,000. To the north, east, and west, the area is bordered by stunning mesas and mountain peaks, including Colorado National Monument. At around 4,700 feet in elevation, the vineyards here are some of the highest in the world. But thanks the mesa walls, the valley’s climate is relatively temperate for Colorado, rarely freezing in winter. That’s quite a feat when you consider ski areas like Arapahoe Basin, Vail, and Powderhorn are all within easy reach. Wine grapes aren’t the only agriculture found here, either–Palisade is famous for its peaches, which are a seasonal favorite as far away as the White House. History The history of wine production in Grand Valley goes back much farther than you would think, way back to the late 19th century and the first US settlers in the area. State Governor George A. Crawford planted commercial vineyards on 60 acres in 1890, but there were likely smaller plantings of grapes for private use at least a decade prior to that. Some people even believe Colorado wines were winning world championships in Paris by the early 1900s, although no one has been able to supply proof of this yet. And then came Prohibition. As with so many areas of alcohol industry in this period of American history, the Grand Valley’s wine production abruptly came to an end. The main agriculture refocused on fruit and the idea of growing wine grapes in Colorado disappeared from general memory. In the late 1960s, biologists at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction started experimenting with different wine varietals to see which, if any, were favorable to the microclimates in Grand Valley. Later, those same biologists started their own vineyards (it should come as no surprise that the campus currently offers a degree in viticulture and oenology). The initial wines produced were, as the locals like to say, “pretty rough”. In a relatively short amount of time, Colorado wines have become known for their high quality and unique terroir. Although small in comparison to wine areas like the Napa Valley, and therefore not able to produce as much yield, there are still over 100 vineyards and nearly 20 wineries within just the AVA’s ten square miles. Varietals The oldest vineyards in the Grand Valley are found near “the wall”, the towering slope of Grand Mesa that runs along the north side of the valley, parallel to the Colorado River. It just so happens that this area has the most favorable microclimates for growing grapes, which explains the high concentration of vines here. The rows of grape vines terminating in the golden-red rock of the Mesa, glowing in the sunset, is one of the most unique vineyard views on the planet. As for the types of grapes grown in this region, the most common are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. But there are 29 varietals in total found here, with likely more to come. Because the Valley has so many microclimates, a grape variety like Cabernet Sauvignon might thrive twenty feet from a spot where it wouldn’t grow at all. The growers are constantly experimenting with new varietals in different locations. Terroir As one might expect from grapes grown at high altitudes, Grand Valley’s wine grapes imitate their high latitude cousins with high acidity because of lower temperatures, particularly at night (in case you don’t know–grapes grown in colder climes, such as Northern France, have less sugar, so they tend to be more acidic and lower in alcohol content than grapes grown in warmer climates). But cooler nights and higher acidity doesn’t tell the whole story, because the days in Grand Valley are still warm, with a much higher UV than one would find at lower altitudes. So even though the grapes are acidic, they also have plenty of sugar. More than probably anything, the UV of high altitude sunlight contributes to the unique terroir of the Grand Valley. Wine Styles As for the wines produced, some wineries favor a very traditional, Old World style, while others are more experimental. Canyon Wind Cellars, the Valley’s most critically acclaimed winery, produces fantastic experimental blends like the Zephyrus and the IV. Grande River Vineyards makes a Lavande Vin Blanc, a mix of Semillon and Viognier grapes that’s infused with lavender, another popular crop in the region. The result is a wine that’s light and crisp, but with very perfumed aromatics. Whitewater Hill Vineyards, on the other hand, focuses more on traditional red and white varietals. Their Cab Sauv Reserve may seem pricey at $29 a bottle, but is well worth the cost. The powerful scent of oak belies the smooth, lovely drinkability of this wine, which has shockingly soft tannins. Whitewater Hill’s traditional Icewine, picked after their Chardonnay grapes have frozen, is syrupy and yet very acidic. You can almost feel ice crystals forming on your tongue as you taste it. Visiting Grand Valley Because of the relatively small production of wine in Grand Valley (see: limited space), the best way to get your hands on some of the wine is to visit! June through September is tourist season, when the tasting rooms will be at their busiest, but you’ll also find plenty of concerts and festivals for entertainment. If you want a quieter experience, visit in the spring or fall. You can also tour some wineries in winter–and maybe fit in some skiing along the way–but many tasting rooms close in the off-season, so double check if you have your heart set on a certain winery. As far as accommodations go, you can’t get much better than the Wine Country Inn, Colorado’s first dedicated wine tour hotel. Smack dab in the middle of vineyards, it’s within walking distance of three wineries and biking distance of at least ten more. And they rent bikes! The Inn has a cozy B&B feel, but with all the amenities of a hotel, including a cute gift shop, pool and hot tub, and a full service restaurant that serves excellent breakfasts, lunches and dinners. The hotel also offers free wine tastings. If you want to be near more nightlife, you’ll have to go about ten minutes east to Grand Junction, where you’ll find a charming downtown area with excellent restaurants and artisan shops. Two Rivers Winery and Chateau is about a fifteen-minute drive away from the downtown area, with a very sleek, grandiose design and several new facilities. But its prospect is not as scenic as that of the Wine Country Inn. For more information about Grand Valley, check out the Grand Valley Winery Association and VisitGrandJunction.com.