While it should be no surprise the strongest influence on Colorado’s viticulture is the Rocky Mountains, it is truly where the East meets the West with a dynamic convergence of high plains, mountains, and desert. The resulting topographical, geographical, and climatological attributes from this convergence produce unique characteristics only found in Colorado: the highest mean altitude of all 50 states at 6,800 feet; approximately three quarters of the land area in the Continental U.S. above 10,000 feet; 59 peaks over 14,000 feet and 830 between 11,000 to 14,000; the world’s deepest hot springs at 1,002 feet; over 300 days of sunshine annually; and the three valleys of San Luis, Fraser, and Gunnison who commonly record on various winter calendar dates as the coldest in the nation.

On all the broad extent of these United States, certainly no region can be found which presents more facts of interest, more opportunities for investigation, and greater possibilities, than the State of Colorado
– Samuel F. Emmons –
geologist on the King Survey of the 40th Parallel from California to Colorado from 1867 to 1872.

Samuel Emmons may have been speaking to geological opportunities and possibilities but it was the same sentiment driving early western Colorado farmers in taking advantage of two microclimates found along the Colorado and North Fork Gunnison rivers. Both areas were well suited for growing fruit and produce, including grapes. Because consistent precipitation was lacking for the semi-arid climate irrigation ditches were built, and many remain in use today. In more recent times, both areas gave birth to two American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), the Grand Valley in 1991 and the West Elks in 2001.

Stone Cottage Cellars, West Elks AVA, courtesy John Fielder Gallery

The Grand Valley and West Elks AVAs are among the highest in the world, growing grapes between 4,000 to 6,700 feet. Grand Valley is located adjacent to the world’s largest flattop mountain, Grand Mesa. West Elks is the highest-elevation appellation in the northern hemisphere ranging between 5,500 to 6,700 feet. Dampening what might in many climes hamper viticulture, the Rocky Mountains to the east of the AVAs can provide protection from the more severe impacts of Canadian winter arctic blasts experienced by the plains, northern, and central mountains. Their locations in river valleys also benefit from prevailing down-river air movement, which has warming effects in the winter and cooling effects in summer.

Grand Valley is the warmer and larger of the two AVAs, 118 vs 75 square miles. Its season begins a few weeks earlier and enjoys 30 percent more frost-free days. The warmer climate in the Grand Valley is due to the high Book Cliffs along the northern side of the valley radiating heat across the eastern portion of the AVA coupled with its lower elevation ranging from 4,000 to 4,500 feet. Grand Valley has a greater percentage of vineyard acres and also produces three times more wine than West Elks, 190,291 vs 60,289 gallons (2021/2022).

North Fork Gunnison River, courtesy John Fielder Gallery
Sutcliffe Vineyards, SW CO, courtesy John Fielder Gallery

Given the unique high-altitude characteristics, you may also be surprised to learn the primary grapes grown in Colorado’s AVAs are Vitis vinifera, grape varietals responsible for the world’s great wines. Vitis vinifera grows best in milder temperate climates such as the Mediterranean, common to Europe, the U.S. west coast, and elsewhere. The Grand Valley does well with grapes benefiting from longer and warmer seasons such as Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, and others, The West Elks focuses on cooler climate grapes such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Gris. One benefit of Colorado’s high-altitude grown wine share in common is a large diurnal shift, the difference between average daytime and nighttime temperatures as in warm days and cool nights. High-altitude solar radiation during the day increases sugar and phenolic ripeness but the process is halted during cool nights facilitating the retention of acid, which is key to making well-balanced wine. 

The challenge in growing grapes in Colorado at higher altitudes is temperature fluctuations and weather extremes, especially in the spring and fall where frosts and freezes can make or break a vintage. One extreme weather instance in late October 2020 in what otherwise had been a mild fall, involved a significant temperature drop into the teens and upper single digits over two nights. The unusually deep and early arctic blast occurred before the vines (and other produce), had an opportunity to harden off for winter. This resulted in the majority of vines dying back to the ground, greatly limiting the 2021 western Colorado grape harvest. Temperature ranges beyond what is common in more temperate regions are why some Colorado growers have moved to grape hybrids, which can better withstand temperature extremes. As of 2021, planted hybrids represented 19 percent of Colorado’s planted acreage. With warmer and more extreme weather events associated with climate change, a subtle yet persistent move to hybrids for winemaking is an international growing trend.

Azura Cellars and Gallery, West Elks AVA, courtesy John Fielder Gallery
Near Palisades with the Book Cliffs in the background, Grand Valley AVA, courtesy John Fielder Gallery

As the name suggests, Grand Valley commands attention and is nicknamed “Colorado Wine Country” for a reason. The eastern portion of the AVA with robust wine-centric activity is at the town of Palisade. Restaurants, nearby wineries and vineyards, orchards, seasonal markets, and festivals abound. A quick spin on the bike takes you along several winery lanes encompassing more than 30 wineries. The AVA has two primary wine festivals, Sip into Spring kicking off the season in early May, and the Colorado Mountain Winefest, celebrating the harvest the third weekend of September. Grand Valley is located along a major U.S. Interstate, which includes western Colorado’s largest metropolitan area Grand Junction, with 66,000 plus residents. This assists in the AVA being a year-round destination.

The West Elks AVA may be the baby sibling to the Grand Valley but it expresses its uniqueness with an agritourism approach. Centered in the North Fork Valley encompassing the towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss, the AVA has a “back to the country” feel. When driving Highway 133 or 92 through the valley, orchards, and fields containing cattle, alpacas, sheep, and goats interspersed with a few deer are framed by the topographical rise of the Gunnison River canyon and the West Elks mountains. There are local markets, festivals, farm and wine tours. The AVAs 12 wineries cluster northeast of Paonia or are scattered among the valley’s mesas. There are two signature wine events sponsored by the AVA, North Fork Uncorked themed by wine and food events signaling the season start in early June, and the West Elks Wine Trail in early August. The North Fork Creative Coalition sponsors a third event, the Mountain Harvest Festival during the last weekend of September. While the valley operates seasonally from mid-May through October, many wineries welcome visitors by appointment off-season.

North Fork Valley Colorado John Fielder Collection
North Fork Valley, West Elks AVA, courtesy John Fielder Gallery

Outside the AVAs, grapes for winemaking are grown throughout western Colorado in select locations. The largest is the Four Corners region in southwestern Colorado. Similar to the two AVAs, the area is typically removed from the more severe temperatures and weather, and enjoys a milder with a semi-arid to arid climate. Grape growing also occurs along the eastern front range and the plains. Grapes outside western Colorado are primarily hybrids, though a few growers with extra care successfully grow Vitis vinifera. 

Wineries are numerous throughout Colorado and cluster in eastern front range and mountain resort communities. Colorado ranks 12th among number of bonded wineries in the United States and 15th in wineries per capita, with more than 265 wineries. Many aspire and make wine from Colorado grapes, though dependent on the desired style and fruit availability other sources are also tapped. New Mexico is a close by source, while California, Oregon, and Washington state are more commonly used. A great industry and general public resource for the AVAs, grape production, and wineries (with a locator!) can be found at Colorado Wine, run by the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.

Courtesy Colorado Wine
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