Jul 292013
 
Colorado Wine

Photo Credit: Michael Wangbickler

Last week I visited The Centennial State as a judge at the Best of Fest Wine Competition. Hosted by the Colorado Association for Viticulture & Enology (CAVE), Best of Fest is Colorado’s “most prestigious local wine competition” for Colorado wine.

I can pretty confidently state that I’m probably (is that enough hedging?) the most knowledgeable California blogger on Colorado wine now. In the past two years, I’ve visited the state three times (once on the Front Range and twice in the Grand Valley).  I can tell you that it is one of the most unique growing areas anywhere in the world. It’s stunningly beautiful and the people are exceptionally welcoming.

Colorado Wine: A Rockies Road

And how is Colorado wine? Well, to be honest, it’s a mixed bag. I’ve tasted hundreds of examples from the past several vintage. There are some very GOOD wines being produced, but there are also some very BAD wines as well. Colorado’s not unique in that regard. Any wine growing region is going to have its stinkers (including California). In Colorado’s case, however, it’s probably more pronounced. Since they only have about 1,000 planted grapevine acres and around 60 producers, the bad apples tend to float to the top. Which, in my opinion, is a great disservice to the  truly great winemakers of the area. The good gets lumped in with the bad and the whole industry suffers.

This disparity in wine quality is one of the reasons that competitions like Best of Fest are so important. It’s a validation for the better producers and a way for consumers to know which Colorado wine they should pick up for dinner this evening.

Best of Colorado

This was the second year the competition took place in Colorado, though it was held for years back east before that. The one main difference with this year’s Best of Fest, which I wholeheartedly applaud, is that they added an important element in judging criteria: Only wines that are Colorado Appellation or from one of Colorado’s AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) were able to enter. Simply stated, this means wines must be made from 75 percent Colorado grapes.

Wait, what? You read that right. Before this year, Colorado wineries could enter wines they made from fruit sourced outside the state. Several of the larger producers import wines and grapes from California and make or bottle them in Colorado. It makes economic sense. It’s basically an insurance policy for an area known for winterkill and frost damage. It’s a bit confusing (or misleading) for the consumer, however, and doesn’t really support local growers. So, the fact that the competition made this change is a very good thing for Colorado wine.

“Our winemakers have always been the stars of the industry and now we are elevating our amazing grape-growing industry, too,” says Cassidee Shull, executive director of the Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology (CAVE).

This was no fanboy lovefest. All the judges evaluated these wines critically and rigorously. Using a stringent judging standard designed to reward wines for shining in quality, not just passing minimum standards, 44 percent, or 73, of the 165 entries received medals.

Fruit Basket

It’s not all grapes though. The state is also known for it’s fruit wines and meads. Now, many wine ‘experts’ tend to poo-poo wines made with anything other than grapes. They shouldn’t. When well made, these wines are the very essence of the fruit they’re made from and very popular with consumers. Most are sweet, which appeals to a broad audience. In addition, there are several winemakers making excellent dessert wines. In fact, a third of all medal wines from the competition were fruit, mead or dessert wines, with ports a very strong category.

Diversity is the Key

The breadth of the wines offered in Colorado makes the area pretty unique.

“Colorado is an impressively diverse, emerging wine region,” says Richard Leahy, Best of Fest Competition Chair. “Its two AVAs (West Elks and Grand Valley) provide a range of varietals from cool climate classics to red Bordeaux and Rhone varieties and blends. In addition, fruit wines and meads are very strong as are ports. Colorado may statistically be the state (not growing hybrid grapes) offering the most diversity of any in the country, not just in grape varieties but in fruit and non-fruit wines.”

“I like the originality and experimentation in Colorado wine,” Leahy continues. “Graystone Vineyards only produces port wines, St. Kathyrn’s specializes in mead and fruit wines, and they produce a lavender wine (made in a riesling base) that flies out of the winery, and got a silver medal in this competition. This shows the diversity possible in Colorado wine but also the spirit of pioneer individualism that is part of the Western character and a refreshing change from the herd mentality of the corporate wine world.”

The Results

So, here are the category winners of the competition:

Best of Fest winners:
Best of Category Red Wine
Turquoise Mesa Winery Crimson 2011

Best of Category White Wine
Plum Creek Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2012

Best of Fest Fruit, Berry and Mead
St. Kathryn Cellars Blueberry Bliss

Best of Fest Dessert Wines
Graystone Winery Port V 2005

* “Best of Fest” wines are recognized as best in a category and received no less than a gold medal. “Best of Category” is the highest scoring wine in a category where there were no gold or double gold medals. 

A list of the remaining medal winners is posted on the CAVE website. I enjoyed my time in Colorado and look forward visiting again.

Disclaimer: CAVE paid my expenses to participate as a judge in the Best of Fest wine competition.

Jun 152012
 
Virginia Vineyards

View from the top of Tranquility Vineyards, operated by 8 Chains North.

California is the de facto king (or queen) of U.S. wine regions, if by no other measurement than the sheer volume of wine the state produces and the quantity of wineries producing it. It is not, however, the nations only, nor is it the oldest wine region (commercially speaking). Long before the Mondavis, Beringers, and Sebastianis made California wine famous on the West Coast, there had been may attempts (and a few successes) at making wine on the East Coast.

The history of winemaking east of the Mississippi finds it’s origin in early colonial times. Thomas Jefferson was an acknowledged francophile and loved French wines. It’s well documented that he tried to plant his own vineyards at Monticello, but ultimately proved unsuccessful at the attempt. There were several reason, not least of which was the then unknown presence of Phylloxera in that particular part of the country.  Jefferson was not the only one to experiment with growing wine grapes in Virginia. As author Todd Kliman points out in his book The Wild Vine, Dr. Daniel Norton was ultimately successful at hybridizing grapes that could produce commercially viable wines. Since then, as a wine producing area, Virginia has proven to be an area where a little bit of luck and hard work can really pay off. Richard Leahy, in his recent book Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, documents the successes (and failures) of Virginia wine producers quite extensively.

Boxwood Winery

Boxwood Winery is one of the better producers of quality wines in Virginia.

So it was, this spring I found myself in the company of several dozen wine writers and bloggers at the 2012 edition of Taste Camp East in Northern Virginia, experiencing the region for myself. This had not been my first adventure to the area on a wine visit, but I was impressed none-the-less. They are making some really fine wine in Virginia. Like any region, there are hits and misses (Don’t let anyone try to tell you that all California wine producers are good). But, as a group, the quality of Virginia wines is good and continues to improve. My personal observation is that the area excels in producing distinctive wines from Viognier and Cabernet Franc, but they also make good wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Pinot Gris, and Petit Manseng.

I was fortunate enough to have tasted over 100 different wines from Virginia. Of those, below are examples (in alphabetical order by winery) I felt were worth sharing. I’ve included very brief tasting notes with each, which definitely would not pass a WSET exam, but accurately reflect my thoughts at the time.

  • 8 Chains North 2008 Furnace Mountain Red – coffee, blackberry, smoke, balanced acid, med+ tannin, long, good
  • 8 Chains North 2009 Furnace Mountain Red – red fruit, talc, oak, chocolate, med body, elevated acid, very good
  • Ankida Ridge 2010 Chardonnay – Fresh, barrel aged, some vanilla but mostly apple, full body, finishes flat, good
  • Ankida Ridge 2010 Pinot Noir – classic, underbrush, cherry cola, ripe tannins, long, very good
  • Annefield Vineyards 2010 Viognier – sweet-tart candy, off-dry, good
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2010 Viognier – perfume, phenolic, sweet mouth, full body, but great acid, very good
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2002 Viognier – caramel, oxidized, fish sauce, lively, long finish, good
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2009 Cabernet Franc – bell pepper, leather, brett(horse), good fruit concentration, firm tannin, good
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2009 Octagon – blakberry, cola, sassafras, good fruit concentration, good acid, long, very good
  • Boxwood Winery 2011 Rose – bright, fresh, great salmon color, a bit lean, but refreshing, good
  • Boxwood Winery 2007 Topiary – nice savory age character, chocolate, black olive, shiitake, black plum, nice depth, long finish, very good+
  • Boxwood Winery 2007 Boxwood- blackberry, earth, chocolate, dark cherry, decent mid-plate, dusty tannins, good length, very good
  • Boxwood Winery 2010 Trellis – deep berry, intense fruit character, a bit warm, long finish, very good
  • Boxwood Winery 2010 Topiary – earth, savory, smoky, good body, very good
  • Boxwood Winery 2010 Boxwood – fruit, firm, blackberry, spice, firm tannin, long, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2010 Viognier – honey, smoke, sweet entry, some RS, a bit bitter on finish, fresh, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2010 Jennifer’s Jambalaya – floral, fruit salad, fresh, lively, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2002 Reserve Merlot – cigar box, soy, savory, tobacco, great body, balanced acidity, long, outstanding
  • Breaux Vineyards 2011 Rose – strawberry, cherry, some sweetness, finishes dry, good acid, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc Reserve – deep color, black cherry, green bean, pencil lead, high extraction, a bit sweet, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon – cola, black cherry, cocoa, artichoke, hay, full body, high alc, better balanced than Franc, long, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2001 Nebbiolo – tar, roses, pencil shavings, crisp acid, soft tannins, cherry cola, long, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2002 Nebbilo – chocolate, cherries, cola, soy, leather, pepper, fuller body, soft tannins, balanced acid, medium, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2005 Nebbiolo – black pepper!, cola, cherry, leather, firm tannins, crisp acid, medium-long, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2007 Nebbiolo (barrel sample) – wood shavings, cherries, cola, spicy, full body, high tannin, high acid, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2006 Soleil – apricot, lanolin, honey, beeswax, sweet, nutty, good acid, long, outstanding
  • Corcoran Vineyards 2010 Apple Wine – apples, cinnamon, off dry, unique, very good
  • Corcoran Vineyards 2010 Amber Creek Chamborcin – cherry, leather, tart, good
  • Corcoran Vineyards 2009 Hunters Run Red – earthy, plum, good acid, firm tannins, good
  • Corcoran Vineyards 2008 Cello – lemonade, full body, sweet, very good
  • Gadino Cellars 2011 Pinot Grigio – fresh, slight floral, apple, crisp, dry, good
  • Gadino Cellars 2010 Cabernet Franc – boysenberry, blackberry, cola, nice structure, great acid, very good
  • Gadino Cellars 2009 Petit Verdot – dark berry, granite, good fruit conc, good acid, very good
  • Glass House Winery 2010 Viongier – tropical, strong phenolics, good acid, full body, good
  • Glass House Winery 2011 Pinot Gris – fruity, refreshing, great acid, long length, very good
  • Glass House Winery 2010 Barbera – Brett, dried berry, earth, savory, cherry, good
  • Glass House Twenty-first NV red wine – soil, nice fruit and acid, raisin on finish, good
  • Hume Vineyards 2011 Seyval Blanc – refreshing, grassy, gooseberry, good acid, dry, good
  • Hume Vineyards 2011 Viognier – fruit, refreshing, good acid, very good
  • Pearmund Cellars 2011 Petit Manseng – baked bread, vinous, sweet mouth, good acid, some phenolic, good
  • Pearmund Cellars 2009 Ameritage – savory, red berry, leather, good
  • Philip Carter Winery 2010 Chardonnay – fresh, citrus, refreshing, bright, very good
  • Philip Carter Winery 2010 Cabernet Franc – red cherry, cola, tart cherry, needs time, good
  • Philip Carter Winery 2010 Meritage – plum, mint, cola, full body, good acid, med tannins, med finish, good+
  • Rappahannock Cellars 2011 Viognier – peach, sweet mouth, good acid, very good
  • Rappahannock Cellars 2009 Meritage – Red berry, pronounced, great concentration, great acid, long, very good
  • Rappahannock Cellars 2010 Cabernet Franc Reserve – big, bold, rich, red berry, warm, dark berry on finish, long, very good
  • Stinson Vineyards 2011 Sauvignon Blanc – fresh, lively, lemon, lime, ice acid, fresh finish, very good
  • Stinson Vineyards 2010 Rose – earthy, smokey, strawberry, good avid, lacking some fruit on palate, good
  • Stinson Vineyards 2010 Cabernet Franc – chocolate, cherry, tobacco, sweet entry, vanilla, bell pepper, pepper, very good
  • Stinson Vineyards 2010 Meritage – black cherry, tobacco, cola, root beer, firm tannin, good acid, long, very good
  • Tarara Winery 2011 Petit Mansang – pineapple, lime, phenolic extrat, some RS, good
  • Tarara Winery 2011 Boneyard White – green, lean, lemon, lime, off dry, good
  • Tarara Winery 2010 Leap XII – chocolate, cola, spice, pepper, tobacco, leather, full body, ripe tannin, long, very good
  • Tarara Winery 2010 Cabernet Franc – sassafras, blackberry, bell pepper, chocolate, vanilla, smoke, med-plus body, very good
  • Tarara Winery 2010 Boneyard Red- cherry, leather, dry, firm tannin, good
  • Veritas Vineyard & Winery 2011 Sauvignon Blanc – gooseberry, lime, great fruit conc, some sweetness, very good+
  • Veritas Vineyard & Winery 2011 Viognier – tropical, apple, full body, good acid, especially on finish, refreshing, very good
  • Veritas Vineyard & Winery 2010 Vintners Reserve Meritage – bell pepper, red berry, spice, good avid, ripe tannin, long, very good
  • Veritas Vineyard & Winery 2010 Petit Verdot – earth, blackberry, plum, good acid, long, very good
  • Vint Hill Craft Winery 2010 Rose – chambercin, light, refreshing, sweet mouth, great acid, lovely, very good+
  • Vint Hill 2009 Chambourone – Amarone from Chambercin – raisin, full body, deep flavor, firm tannin, long, interesting
  • White Hall Vineyards 2011 Viognier – fresh, lively, floral, good phenolics, good body, decent acid, good
  • White Hall Vineyards 2010 Petite Verdot – smoky, dark berry, good fruit concentration, good acid, and long finish, very good

I suppose the true measurement of any wine region is whether or not one would go out of their way to seek out these wines. Would I? Definitely! Being that I live in California wine country, it’s unlikely that I will be able to find these wines on a local store shelf just yet, but many are available for purchase online. So, next time you are thinking of trying something new, reach for a bottle of wine from Virginia.