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On a warm, windy day this past April, the sandstone buttes of the Bookcliff Mountains tower in the distance as farmer Kaibab Sauvage and winemaker Patric Matysiewski stand between rows of grapevines at Sauvage Spectrum, their two-and-a-half-year-old winery and vineyard. Nearby, patrons sip glasses of sparkling rosé and Riesling in the tasting room, housed in a no-frills, disco-ball-adorned building that also doubles as a production facility. Under the warmth of the Western Slope sun, Sauvage points out plants that were damaged by an unexpected frost in fall 2020. “It really wiped everything out,” he says.
Sauvage grows 17 acres of fruit trees and 70 acres of grapes for more than 25 wineries across Colorado—including Sauvage Spectrum, Carboy Winery, and Breckenridge’s Continental Divide Winery—via his 22-year-old company, Colorado Vineyard Specialists. But the Grand Valley’s recent weather, affected by the extreme temperature swings that are one hallmark of climate change, hasn’t made it easy to harvest the juicy clusters. In October 2020, frost killed or damaged more than 75 percent of the state’s Vitis vinifera, the European grapevine species that encompasses familiar varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot. Another unexpected cold spell in April 2021 decimated select vines, including some 30,000 managed by Sauvage and his team.
It will take them another six months to finish retraining the ravaged vines, a painstaking process that entails removing the dead trunks, waiting for new shoots to grow, and tying and trimming them accordingly. However, not all was lost: Varieties such as Teroldego and Viognier—grapes with origins in Italy and France that Sauvage planted for their cold-weather-tolerant natures—survived. “The majority of the fruit we got last year was off those vines,” Sauvage says. “They were definitely an insurance policy that has paid off.”
Since Sauvage and Matysiewski established the winery in 2019, the two have shifted the business plan from crafting a portfolio of six more traditional red and white wines to focusing on smaller-batch, rarer-in-Colorado styles driven by whatever grapes are thriving in the fields. At the onset of the pandemic, Sauvage Spectrum also scaled back on its plans for wholesale business and zeroed in on direct-to-consumer sales, a move inspired by the COVID-19-driven rise in tourism on the Western Slope. Now, road trippers and pedicab-riding bachelorettes flock to the business to clink glasses of effervescent Sparklet Candy Red, a rendition of Italian Lambrusco, or grapefruit-forward Grüner Veltliner, an iteration of Austria’s legendary white that Matysiewski re-imagined through a Colorado lens. “We want to do the weird, the obscure,” Matysiewski says. “Do we want to be like Napa? No. We want to be the anti-Napa.”
If you can grow grapes in the Centennial State, you can grow them anywhere, says Jenne Baldwin-Eaton, the former leader of the viticulture and oenology program at Western Colorado Community College, a division of Colorado Mesa University (CMU) in Grand Junction. Two American Viticultural Areas—the Grand Valley and the West Elks—grow 90 percent of Colorado grapes in terroir characterized by extremes: soil and water with high pH levels (meaning there are fewer nutrients for plants); triple-digit desert heat in the summer months; and high elevation, which contributes to a shorter growing season that isn’t ideal for grape varieties that ripen later in the season. “We’re growing grapes up to 7,000 feet above sea level, and really the only other place that does that is Argentina,” she says.
Baldwin-Eaton was the winemaker at Plum Creek Winery in Palisade for 22 years before she left to establish the program at CMU in 2017. During her tenure in the Grand Valley, she’s watched the weather become more challenging. Many farmers battled phylloxera (an insect that eats roots of Vitis vinifera vines) in 2016 and endured five unexpected freezes between 2013 and 2021. In fact, the area has experienced up to three times as many low temperature records in the past 15 to 20 years as it has since the National Weather Service began tracking the area’s climate in 1895, according to Horst Caspari, a state horticulturist and viticulture professor at Colorado State University. “It’s been a really trying time for both our grape growers and our wineries with Mother Nature,” Baldwin-Eaton says. “Trying to find out what’s going to make [the wine industry] sustainable is super important.”
When 38-year-old Plum Creek—one of the state’s oldest wineries—couldn’t acquire any Vitis vinifera grapes from Palisade’s Talbott Farms in 2021 to produce the Chardonnays and Cabernet Francs it was known for, winemaker Joe Flynn began experimenting. The farm provided him with surviving hybrid grapes such as Chambourcin, Aromella, and St. Vincent. The varieties are bred to be more resistant to phylloxera and chillier climates by crossing European Vitis vinifera vines with American Vitis labrusca or Vitis riparia varieties. Those fruits yielded batches of dry rosés, white blends, and the company’s first pétillant naturels (aka pét-nats or day-drinking-ready natural sparklers that are carbonated in the bottle), all of which have been well-received by customers. “People have been really welcoming to them,” Flynn says. “A lot of times they give you this baffled look when you spew up four different cold-hardy varieties that [are in the bottle] and are like, Wait, what did you just say to me? Was that Greek? But once they try it, they see how unique these hybrids can be.”
Because hybrid grapes can have more erratic pH levels than their Vitis vinifera counterparts and those numbers constantly change throughout the fermentation process, Flynn says the batches of wine need to be monitored more closely. It’s easy to foretell what flavors Vitis vinifera grapes will produce off the vine, but hybrids can produce more wide-ranging results. The extra effort is worth it to Flynn and his team, though: Plum Creek plans to continue making wines from its classic lineup this year (that includes a berry-kissed red blend and an oak-aged Merlot), but it will also keep working with hybrids. “You have to be like water,” Flynn says. “You have to flow and roll with the punches. You have to improvise, adapt, and overcome.”
Flynn and Sauvage Spectrum’s Matysiewski share a goal: to ensure Colorado wine stays solvent and relevant in consumers’ minds by trying new things. This mindset has become more widespread in the past few years, Baldwin-Eaton says, particularly as more winemakers enter the picture: In 1990, there were fewer than 10 wineries in the state; now, there are more than 170. “That’s where we start to see a lot of creativity and changes,” she says. “They are just trying to find their niches in the industry—so you see wine cocktails, ciders, mead, fruit wines, other unknown cultivars, and styles like sparkling and pét-nats. [Winemakers and grape growers] are all working toward supporting this wine region, but they also are trying to find what’s going to work best for them.”
Of course, not everyone is on board with the adaptations.
Less than three miles from Sauvage Spectrum, the patio at Colterris Winery bustles with activity. Patrons enjoy guided tastings of the 14-year-old company’s current releases—all of which are produced with 100 percent Vitis vinifera crops—in a grassy, al fresco dining area. The property has 71 acres of grapes, which owner Scott High and his team turn into 18,000 cases of Chardonnay, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other sippers each year. That makes it Colorado’s largest “estate” winery, one that makes products with fruit grown on-site. (By contrast, Sauvage Spectrum only churns out 4,000 to 5,000 cases annually.) High, his son Keenan, and winemaker Bo Felton take guests on a tour of the barrel-aging cave. The dimly lit room is packed from wall to wall with neatly arranged barrels filled with aging wine; an adjacent space the Highs call the Library is furnished with dark woods, lights fashioned from repurposed bottles, and racks stacked with vintages from years past.
Because of crop damage from the October 2020 temperature drop, Colterris skipped a harvest in 2021 and didn’t create any wines. After retraining and replanting about 5,000 vines, High says nearly all of his land has recovered from the disaster, though the vineyard may shift its harvest dates to adjust to changing fall frosts. The team may pick clusters off the vine earlier, but High doesn’t plan on planting hybrid or cold-hardy varieties, grapes he says yield lower-grade products. “If hybrid grapes made really good-quality wines, I think you would see them growing in all the fine-wine regions of the world,” he says. “They just don’t have the same traditional characteristics [as the Vitis vinifera]. And I haven’t tasted a wine made from a hybrid grape that I thought was very interesting, ever.”
Instead, High and his team prefer to plant clones, grape crops that result from propagated cuttings of vines it is already growing. This helps species adapt to changing growing conditions and alters the characteristics of the fruit—resulting in more complex flavors for wines, High says. Some of Colterris’ vintages made with these grapes have even earned gold medals at the renowned San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, including a cinnamon-scented Cabernet Franc and a subtly spicy Malbec from 2019.
Colterris is one of the only wineries in Palisade that continues to depend solely on traditional vines. High’s low opinion of hybrids aside, his vineyard’s prime placement in a location where the weather can be slightly warmer in the fall and winter months than in other spots in the valley gives him that luxury. “He’s got one of the best locations in the state,” says Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board. “The closer your vineyards are to the mouth of De Beque Canyon [on the Colorado River], the less likely you are to see freeze events.”
Back outside at a patio table, a group of customers clad in floppy hats and oversized sunglasses are finishing up a charcuterie board and discussing their next stop: Carboy, the latest addition to Palisade’s winery scene. The company, which has locations in Littleton, Denver, and Breckenridge, purchased the property and vineyard in early 2021 and debuted a new tasting room this past April. Carboy focuses on making wine—particularly sparkling elixirs—crafted from hybrid and Vitis vinifera grapes cultivated on-site and sourced from Sauvage’s Colorado Vineyard Specialists.
Bubbly varieties can be made with any type of grape, but the fruit can be harvested earlier, when its acid and sugars are at prime levels for effervescent wine, to avoid any detrimental fall weather events, says Kevin Webber, Carboy’s CEO. Planting the right cold-hardy and hybrid varieties in the first place also helps the business protect itself from the cataclysmic effects of climate change—and stay on-trend.
“I said four years ago that I thought Cab Franc was the wine that put us on the map. And it still may very well be one of the wines that Colorado is known for,” Webber says. “But I also think that there are other varietals that shine here. Teroldego [a red Italian grape] definitely has that opportunity. Any of these hybrids, like Petite Pearl, are starting to get a lot of attention now, as well.”
In June, Colorado Vineyard Specialists planted fresh vines of Teroldego, along with Pinot Meunier, Zweigelt, and Grüner Veltliner—European grapes known to perform well in chillier parts of the world. The fruit is in high demand, and Colorado Vineyard Specialists’ entire 2022 harvest is already spoken for. “There is one common theme,” Sauvage says. “All the wineries want more grapes this year.”