Exploring Colorado’s West Elks American Viticultural Area | SummitDaily.com

Exploring Colorado’s West Elks American Viticultural Area

Christina Holbrook
Special to the Daily

While many of the wines we are used to drinking come from vineyards in France or California at relatively low elevations, across the globe wine is also being produced higher up. In Europe, vines grow in the Alps at 4,000 feet and in the Spanish Canary Islands at up to 5,000 feet. The highest vineyards in the world are in Argentina, with Colomé, in Salta, being the world's highest estate at over 9,800 feet.

What is the effect of altitude on wine? According to the Journal of Vineyard and Winery Management, "grapes grown at high altitude may develop a more favorable phenolic profile" (Nov./Dec. 2007). In laymen's terms, the cooler temperatures and the greater intensity of the sun positively impact how the wine tastes, its color, and how it feels in your mouth — big, sweet, tannic or chewy, for example.

Less than three hours from Summit County lies the West Elks Region, Colorado's only other designated American Viticultural Area (AVA) outside of The Grand Valley. This high-altitude terroir falls within the North Fork Valley of the Gunnison River, and includes Paonia and Hotchkiss. Like the Grand Valley AVA, West Elks supports the growth of the vitis vinifera grapes, those with a long-standing history throughout Europe and beyond as fine wine grapes. At an altitude that reaches 6,417 feet, the area is particularly known for its Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir, while other grapes grown here include Nebbiolo, Barbera, Merlot and several hybrid strains.

A WINE-TASTING ROAD TRIP TO WEST ELKS AND THE NORTH FORK VALLEY

Take in the gorgeous scenery as you drive from Summit County to Paonia, heading west through Glenwood Canyon, then south past Redstone and over spectacular McClure pass.

Along the way, stop in Wolcott where Vines at Vail is located. Here owner and winemaker Patrick Chirichillo has been making wine for 25 years from grapes purchased in California through a grower his family has worked with for nearly 40 years. In the Italian family tradition, Vines at Vail first operated as a wine-making cooperative where locals bought their own barrel and participated each year in making their own wine. Today the co-op continues, alongside a tasting room and cellar that is open to the public. "Bring a picnic," Chirichillo urged, "and share some wine. Do a barrel sampling and a winery tour — and I promise, you'll meet some nice people." Before leaving, grab a bottle of red blend Vail Bella or Birds of Prey Cabernet.

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You'll want to call ahead to let Eames Petersen of Alfred Eames Cellars in Paonia know you're coming. Petersen doesn't operate a traditional tasting room, but with a little advanced notice he'll be happy to show you around the winery and, if you're lucky, offer a glimpse of the winery's impressive, underground wine cellar. Petersen, who learned how to make wine in Spain as a young man, has no doubt that the grapes in West Elks are "world class."

"The weather is a problem," he admitted, "but it also actually helps. It gives the fruit great character. You can lose some fruit to spring frost but generally speaking the cool nights in fall tend to bring out the sugars and increase the character of the fruit. California has more dependable growth. We have greater character."

Though Petersen's limited-batch Collage, Sangre del Sol, Tempranillo and Pinor Noir are sought after in restaurants from Denver to Aspen to Grand Junction, he takes a low-key attitude to wine making. "I don't live in the fast lane, I'm not interested in hurrying up to get on schedule — I think that's totally contrary to making a good wine. You've got to be a little laid back to make wine."

Continuing west, you'll arrive in Hotchkiss. And there could hardly be a more picturesque location to stop for a glass of wine than LeRoux Creek Inn and Vineyard. On the day of my visit, I got out of the car and my jaw must have dropped — because owner and winemaker Yvon Gros laughed at my reaction to the lovely sweep of hillside vineyards. Gros is originally from France, and remarked, "I have friends who live in Provence and they always challenge me: 'Colorado look like France? It's impossible,' they say! Then they come here, and look at the hills, the terrain, and say, 'Wow, it's really similar.'"

Given the challenges of the terroir, Gros and his wife Joanna decided to plant hybrid varieties — the red French Chambourcin and the Cayuga white — when they moved to Hotchkiss 16 years ago.

"Hybrids are less susceptible to disease so we could be all organic," he said. "And we make wine more in the French style, a little more acidity, like in the South of France."

Gros also offers this summer's "it" wine, a lovely rose. "It's low alcohol, light in color, with a dry refreshing taste."

If time allows, those on a wine tasting jaunt may want to spend a night — or two — at LeRoux Creek Inn. Joanna Gros described the effect of this peaceful oasis on guests: "People walk out onto the deck and see the view and there is almost a sigh — the serenity, the privacy. Now the vineyards are coming into bloom, there are hiking trails down to the creek and ducks strolling around the yard. Its just so peaceful."

The North Fork Valley of which West Elks is a part has a higher concentration of organic farms then any other region of Colorado. A commitment to "chemical-free" is made by many of the local winemakers — as well as those producing hard ciders. Delicious Orchards, also in Hotchkiss, is another must stop along the West Elks wine trail. Here visitors can sample a wide variety of organically-grown fruits and vegetables, and cool off with a glass of Big B's Cider.

"We are a "U-Pick" farm and July is cherry season — so come on by and pick some cherries," owner Jeff Schwartz said enthusiastically. "We'll make you lunch on the grill. Have a cider, let the kids run around or play on the 30 foot rope swing."

Delicious Orchards also has an indoor café, a camping ground and live music on many weekend nights.

THE WEST ELKS WINE TRAIL

Other excellent winemakers from Paonia to Cedaredge include Azura Winery, Crag's Crest Cellars, Black Bridge Winery, Jack Rabbit Hill, Mesa Winds Winery, Terror Creek, and 5680. During the Annual Wine Trail Weekend, Aug. 5-7, winemakers will treat visitors to a pairing of their wine with tasty appetizers made with local ingredients.

Christina Holbrook is a writer living in Breckenridge. She is working on a book on The Winelands of Colorado, to be published in Spring 2017 by The Hoberman Collection.

Summit County and the Colorado Wine Scene

Chefs in Summit County are taking notice of Colorado Wines. Chef David Welch, owner with his wife Patti of the successful Food Hedz Restaurant and Catering business, noted: “We already work with farmers in Paonia and now want to create a solid avenue for adding more eclectic Colorado wines to our banquet menu. It’s the right thing to do, and chefs and restaurants should focus on helping these winemakers, who work so hard, get more exposure.”

And Stacey Brooks, owner of The Warming Hut in Breckenridge, is presenting a Colorado-themed dinner to her Supper Club in July — including Colorado meats, cheeses and produce — and four courses of Colorado wines. “For this dinner, I want to offer wines that are unique, not the usual,” said Brooks. For reservations to this special dinner on July 11, call The Warming Hut at (970) 389-3104

Other local wine events:

Keystone Wine & Jazz Festival, Friday, July 15 through Sunday, July 17

2016 Breckenridge Food & Wine Festival, Saturday, July 30

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