Vines on a mountain: Elevation as terroir in Colorado winemaking

The concept of terroir , says winemaker Warren Winiarski, includes all things not man-made. In Colorado, that includes growing grapes at high elevation. These Gewurtztraminer vines, thriving at 6,200 feet elevation near Paonia, Co., are among the highest vineyards in North America.

The concept of terroir, says winemaker Warren Winiarski, includes all things not man-made. In Colorado, that includes growing grapes at high elevation. These Gewurtztraminer vines, thriving at 6,200 feet elevation near Paonia, Co., are among the highest vineyards in North America.

The question of whether Colorado wines reflect a unique terroir has no easy answer.

Supporters of “terroir” – the concept that the place a wine comes from is reflected in its taste and determines its quality – claim they can identify a wine’s distinct origins simply by blind-sampling the wine.

Do Colorado wines reflect their provenance and is it enough to be unique?

For some ideas and possible answers I turned to Warren Winiarski, the winemaker who produced the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine that won the 1976 Judgment of Paris and made America a wine-drinking country. Before that, however, Winiarski in 1968 helped Denver dentist Gerald Ivancie set up Colorado’s first modern commercial winery.

During a mid-May tasting of Colorado wines at Metropolitan State University in Denver, Winiarski said how impressed he was with some of the samples.

In one instance, he told the other judges, “You should give this wine a gold medal, because this is the kind of winemaking we want to encourage.”

I called Winiarski a few weeks ago, asking if it’s possible Colorado wines reflect any unique terroir.

According to an earlier statement, he considers terroir to be “more than the soil, it can be any number of things that are not man-made.”

And in Colorado, that includes the elevation.

“I think growing the grapes at (your) altitude might have an effect,” he said during our conversation. “I can’t really describe it but I find the white wines develop clarity, purity and a transparency of flavors while the reds develop fruitiness and good tannins without heaviness.”

Colorado state enologist Stephen Menke said in an email the Governor’s Cup judges generally agreed that Colorado terroir is “expressed in the fruit-forward flavor of both whites and reds, the darker color of Colorado reds and the fruitiness/acidity balance of the un-oaked Chardonnay and some other whites.”

Wine writer Jamie Goode on his blog Wineanorak.com said terroir “consists of the site or region-specific characteristics” of a wine. As noted in last week’s post, Winiarski strongly believes in regionality but also insists there is much more than that.

Well-made wines “betray their origins some way or another,” Winiarski told Kyle Schlachter of Colorado Wine Press. But “a wine that expresses and satisfies by its completeness” goes “beyond regional characteristics.”

“What does it mean to be complete? Three things – (a wine) has a beginning, a middle and an end,” he said.

That purity of expression Winiarski mentioned might be caused in part by the growing conditions (including the elevation) but as Menke also noted, a winemaker needs to have more in his toolbox than simply a nice place to grow grapes.

Colorado winemakers in some cases have 20 or more years experience in working with Colorado-grown grapes and that knowledge has much to do with the continuing improvement in winemaking.

It may be the keys to Colorado terroir are both altitude and attitude.

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