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Chasing a dream: Amateur wines show character, flaws

November 11, 2018 Comments off
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A portion of the 96 entries received this year for the Colorado Amateur Winemakers Competition.  As in years past, red wines outnumbered all others. Photo by Cassidee Shull

 

On a crystal-bright Saturday morning in early November, I sat down at the Wine Country Inn with five other volunteer judges for the Colorado Amateur Winemaking Competition.

This annual wine judging is but one of the many wine-related events including Colorado Mountain Winefest produced by the Colorado Association for Viticulture & Enology (CAVE).

“This year we have 96 entries, including seven fruit wines, 17 white wines, two ice wines, five rosés and 65 red wines,” CAVE’s tireless executive director Cassidee Shull, who wrangled up the judges, countless wine glasses and a handful of wine openers, said as the day began. “We’ll taste through the wines and at the end choose the top wines to compete for Best of Show.”

That was pretty much the last we saw her as she spent the day, along with CAVE Program Director Melinda Tredway and hard-working volunteers Linda Keltner and Tiffany Sommers, shuttling carts loaded with wine glasses from the bottle room to the judges’ tables and back.

The judging offers amateur winemakers the opportunity to have their wines objectively assessed rather than relying on family and thirsty neighbors.

According to Orchard Mesa grape grower Rusty Price, the competition began at the 1994 Colorado Mountain Winefest at Palisade’s Veteran’s Park.

“The state wine industry was very, very small at the time (nine wineries), we didn’t even have a contest for the pros,” Price said. At the 1993 Winefest, he “hauled about 500 pounds of grapes” to the park for a grape-stomping event. That proved so popular  he added an amateur winemakers’ competition the following year. “I think we had seven contestants and I didn’t enter because I was operating it,” said Price. “I think a lot of the wineries around now got their start at that contest.”

Price competed once, in 2000, and his Sunset Mesa Cellars Chardonnay won Best White Wine and Best of Show.

This year’s 96 entries from 27 winemakers provided “great insight into the growth of the Colorado Wine Industry as a whole,” Shull said. “These are the next generation of winemakers and grape growers ready to join this amazing industry.”

The eclectic mix of wines wasn’t unexpected, given the “who knows what will show up” history of the amateur contest.

“Annual entries are like the weather; you never know what you’re going to get,” judge Christine Feller said. “They are sometimes exceptional.”

While nothing this year was exceptional, there were some well-made and very nice wines.

“I really enjoyed the fruit wines,” offered judge Jenne Baldwin-Eaton, former winemaker at Plum Creek Winery and now teaching viticulture and enology at Western Colorado Community College. “They had matching aromatics and flavor.”

Incidentally, 1994 was the first year Baldwin-Eaton (it just Baldwin back then) attended Winefest and soon after landed a job with Erik Bruner, then Plum Creek’s winemaker.

The white wines, both dry and sweet, were generally well-received, a compliment in the sense there weren’t any overly faulty wines and several were close to commercial quality.

Baldwin-Eaton noted some work still needs to be done in the crucial area of balancing acid and sweetness in wines with residual sugar (remaining after fermentation). There also were oxidation (browning) issues in several of the white wines.

This “is part of what makes white wines more difficult to make,” Baldwin-Eaton said.

Red wines are buffered from oxidation by tannins and oak-aging, both of which add complexity to a wine.

That noted, the rosés and red wines received mixed reviews.

Pat Kennedy said “The improvements in the red wine is remarkable” while Feller, who has 20-plus years judging wines in this and other competitions, noted the red wines to her overall were disappointing.

There were “many flaws or challenges the winemakers couldn’t resolve,” Feller later wrote in an email. “Ordinarily, there are several remarkable reds.”

Kennedy, formerly at Talon Wine Brands, also mentioned tasting “seven or eight” oxidized wines.

The most-common flaw reported was over-extraction, caused by leaving the skins and juice together too long.

The process is desirable in some wines but uncontrolled can produce over-developed phenolics, chemicals affecting taste, color and mouthfeel of wines.

Not every winemaker will be pleased with their review but as Baldwin-Eaton noted, the competition offers amateurs valuable experience prior to starting a bonded winery.

“A lot of hard work and labor goes into making small-scale wine, and I am very appreciative of (the winemakers’) efforts,” she said. “By entering their wines and opening themselves up to constructive criticism and praise for what they are doing correctly, it lets me know that they want to improve and increase the quality of their efforts.”

Medals will be awarded Jan. 15 during the 14thannual VinCO Conference & Trade Show at Two Rivers Convention Center. Information at winecolorado.org.

The challenges amateurs face

Why doesn’t every amateur winemaker make wines as good as the pros? Lack of experience, yes, but state enologist Stephen Menke said the biggest holdback for amateurs might well be the cost of good equipment.

Much amateur wine is made in someone’s basement or garage in glass or plastic jugs known as carboys ranging from ½-gallon to 15 gallons.

“For amateurs it’s all self-financed so they tend to go cheap, maybe even water-down the fruit,” Menke said. “It’s hard to do professional style and quality on a really low budget.”

White wines are especially difficult given the special equipment needed to regulate temperatures during fermentation.

White wines “are trying to showcase the varietal fruit components of the wine,” Jenne Baldwin-Eaton said. “If anything goes wrong with a white wine fermentation, it will be hard to hide and you will have lost the nice fruit components.”

Pat Kennedy said during his years at Talon “we worked hard at the cold-stabilization stage in the aging process for the white wines.

“I would imagine that an amateur winemaker wouldn’t have the equipment to chill the wine and keep it cold for a long period of time.”

A major concern, shared with commercial winemakers, is keeping things clean.

“You can get bottle acidity, oxidation, and even some bacterial infections if you don’t pay attention to the details,” Menke said, noting that professionals have the experience and the equipment to deal with such problems.

“The most important thing is knowing how to clean your equipment,” he said. “Eighty percent of our time is spent making sure things are not contaminated.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rainy start to an early VinItaly

March 24, 2015 Leave a comment

 

 Verona  – VinItaly came early this years, and while rain isn’t unexpected during this spring four-day gathering, the transition from late winter to early spring weather seems a bit cooler than normal.

That’s certainly not a complaint, since it’s always a thrill to arrive in this bustling north-Italy city, to see the coliseum and Castel Vecchio and stumble on fine restaurants hidden down narrow cobbly streets.

However, a comment on the weather is a suitable way to start as one of the laments heard from winemakers in northern Italy is that last year was one of the wettest vintages in memory, with rain until late August.

The sun returned in late summer but didn’t leave some winemakers with enough time to have their grapes reach the desired level of ripeness. 

On the morning of Day 1 I first made a  quick run through the Franciacorta region, which is one of my favorite places to start this fair,  and several people remarked how their 2014 wines were a little “sharper” than normal, even in their young state.

That gave a bit more acidity to the wines, a characteristic I found pleasing and certainly makes the wines more food-friendly. Apparently a lot of people agree; by mid-morning this always popular area had people three and four deep at some of the booths.

Another oft-heard remark was the early start to VinItaly (last year’s fair was two weeks later) gave winemakers a short time between finishing and bottling their wines for presentation here in Verona.

“It’s a little young” or “It’s not ready ” was heard at many booths although there was no lack of enthusiasm for the wines from either winemakers or fairgoers.

My first day normally is a whirlwind as I get my bearings and seek out old friends and try their latest vintages. As customary, I spent most of the day on sparkling wines, from the metodo classico of Franciacorta to the tre bicchiere Prosecci of Graziano Merotto in Valdobbiadene.

Other stops included the newest Bandarossa from Bortolomiol and the bright-cherry Raboso Spumante from Corvezzo.

 I also stopped to see Ambra Tiraboschi from Ca’Lojera in Lugana, of whom I’ll write more after my visit there Saturday.

And that’s enough from Day One.