The basics of Colorado wine

There are a million and one rules, terms, and definitions that can make learning about wine less pleasurable than chugging Carlo Rossi. Piedmont, AOCs, Châteauneuf de Pape, DOCGs, tannins, icewines, noble grapes, hybrids … the list of potential knowledge stretches longer than a European wine cave. It’s enough to make you want to drink your bottle without giving much thought to anything but flavor, education be damned. Or you can tackle a much more manageable sector of wine info: Colorado. Absorb this easy-to-swallow primer and show your friends you know local wine next time you uncork a bottle.

Colorado’s Grape Growing Regions

Grand Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA)
The heart of Colorado’s wine country is also home to its largest American Viticultural Area, which is a legally defined U.S. wine region. The Grand Valley AVA is a swath of land at about 4,700 feet that’s centered in Palisade and runs along the Colorado River to Grand Junction. Comparisons to Argentina, Rhône, and Germany wine regions are common as microclimates, soil compositions, and varied elevation throughout make for an incredibly diverse growing area befitting of so many seemingly random comparisons.

West Elks AVA
With vineyards located at a robust 6,400 feet in elevation, this small grape-producing region along the North Fork of the Gunnison River is one of the highest places on Earth that succeeds in growing wine grapes. Paonia is the heart of West Elks, and grapes that don’t mind a little cold, such as Riesling and Pinot Noir, and interesting hybrids thrive here. Just outside the AVA, there are several other grape growing regions throughout Delta County.

Four Corners
Located in Montezuma County in the southwestern portion of Colorado, this desert oasis is home to just a handful of wineries and vineyards. There is growing speculation that this area could increase to match the potential of the Grand Valley, but as of now, it’s just a pretty cool place to drink wine and enjoy the canyons and views of Mesa Verde National Park.

Montrose County
Home to a handful of vineyards and wineries, mostly near Olathe, this area is known more for its corn than grape production. It’s well worth checking out if you’re heading south on Highway 550 toward Telluride.

Common Colorado Wine Terms

  • East Orchard Mesa: This fertile growing area rises a few hundred feet above the town of Palisade and features a bevy of vineyards and fruit farms overlooking the valley.
  • Grand Valley: This designation features areas outside the official AVA, covering Grand Junction, East Orchard Mesa, and Palisade, which accounts for almost 80 percent of all wine-grape growing in the state.
  • Colorado wine: By law, if a bottle says “Colorado” on it, at least 75 percent of the grapes used were grown here.
  • Western Slope: The all-encompassing term for the communities on the western portion of the Colorado Rockies. It’s the west side’s Front Range, basically.
  • Urban wineries: Scattered throughout the Front Range, these wineries often source grapes from the Western Slope but make the wines on location in Boulder, Denver, and various other urban communities.
  • Fruit wines: Yes, grapes are fruit, but it’s the other fruits that lead to this labeling. Cherries, peaches, and apples are common bases for Colorado fruit wines — some of which are also blended with traditional grapes, too.
  • Palisade peaches: These best peaches in the world, if you ask locals. The jury is still out on that claim, but no summertime stop to wine country is complete without a visit to a Palisade farm stand.
  • Canned and keg wine: Colorado is a non-traditional growing area and many winemakers are finding non traditional ways to package their wines. This includes producing cans of wines (sold in 4-packs) and filling kegs!

Colorado Wine Trails

Simply put, wine trails are marketing pushes to drive business by giving visitors a reason to explore, but they’re still pretty fun to follow. Colorado has several, ranging from the massive Heart of Colorado Wine Country Trail, which incorporates the state’s two AVAs and takes a few days to properly enjoy, to the tiny Mesas Wine Trail, a four-stop tour atop East Orchard Mesa. In between are the Front Range and Four Corners wine trails. The Palisade Fruit & Wine Byway is the latest, and it encompasses both fruit orchards and vineyards.