Writing about wine is supposed to be fun, but like a lot of other things that have happened in the last couple of years, a good time isn’t part of the story.
Challenge, opportunity and resilience are.
That’s because the wines people will be drinking made from Colorado vines will be some of the first tastes from grapes that survived severe climate-related stress during the pandemic. A pair of dramatic freezes in impacted vineyards and, in the coming years, are likely to change how Colorado grapes are grown and wine is made here.
“It’s a challenging climate,” said Doug Caskey, Executive Director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. “We’ve been right on the edge of where you can grow grapes, but we do frequently have curveballs from Mother Nature. In 2019 and 2020, we had significant issues with extreme temperature swings, 70 or 80 degrees in a two day period in October. It got much colder than most vines were ready for. Vines like to harden off slowly. When a drop happens quickly, they’re not ready for it.”
The successive challenges damaged the vines enough that an estimated 70 to 100 percent of grapes were affected. Damage was specific to regions where temperature drops occurred: Mesa, Delta, and Montrose counties.
Yields for 2021’s harvest were impacted. What’s left will start to appear in wine lover’s glasses as 2021 spring and summer vintages.
Ulla Merz is Co-owner of Bookcliff Vineyards, which prides itself on using 100% Colorado-grown grapes. “It was the most severe damage I’ve seen since making wine here. We lost an entire vintage of Viognier.”
Winemakers are making the best of what’s happened. When talking about the crop losses, Caskey mentioned that the damage came on the heels of a bountiful harvest, so wineries had some reserve to carry them through.
Even with the stress, Bookcliff has bottles of 2021 wine to share. “We’ll be releasing our Chardonnay 2021, our Rose and our Riesling 2021, and our Muscat Blanc 2021,” said Merz.
At press time, they’d just been bottled but the labels hadn’t even been developed yet. Merz expected that the chardonnay as an unoaked wine aged on stainless steel, would present with a fresher characteristic while the rose would maintain good acidity.
Merz also mentioned that this year they’ll be releasing a wine not grown from Colorado grapes, an Albarino. “It’s a Spanish white variety with a good acid structure and crisp finish. Light and refreshing.”
Just as wineries are making new and difficult choices in how they source grapes, concern about future climate-related stress may be changing the types of grapes grown.
Caskey said, “What’s exciting is that many growers have been experimenting with cold-tolerant varieties. Winemakers are taking those grapes more seriously and are getting great results with varietals people haven’t heard of.”
He shared an example with us, “Petillant naturel, methode ancestral wines have a yeastier flavor and the carbonation is managed differently, bringing a flavor that may be popular with craft beer drinkers. The cold tolerant grapes lend themselves to this style.”
For those eager to get out and taste this year’s harvest and support and congratulate vintners for making products, there will be no shortage of places to go even without leaving the area.
According to Caskey, “A lot of people don’t realize that we have more of our wineries up and down the Front Range. The grapes come from Grand Valley and other places but the wineries are here. It’s easier to transport grapes than to transport customers.”
If you’re looking to support wineries after a hard year or just enjoy something delicious in your glass, there’s never been a better time. For a full list of wineries visit coloradowine.com.