Floridians travel to Colorado a lot. Only California and Texas send more tourists to this land of snow and yogis. If you find yourself heading to the Centennial State for some skiing or hiking or yoga (or, ummm, partaking of recreational substances) it’s worth checking out the local wine too.

In a state known – beverage-wise – for beer, and more recently for spirits, winemaking in Colorado has long played third fiddle. And it still does. But on a recent visit, I was pleased to find that the quality of Colorado’s wine is nothing to sneeze at. If you know where to look, you can find some lovely, cool-climate Old World-style wines, some of them even age-worthy.

My recent Colorado wine experience started in a quirky subterranean restaurant in Colorado Springs called The Rabbit Hole.

Rabbit Hole
The entrance to subterranean Rabbit Hole restaurant in Colorado Springs – a free-standing doorway in the middle of the sidewalk.

There were three Colorado wines on the menu. The server couldn’t tell me much about them, but I vaguely remembered a good experience with Colterris Wines, so I took a chance on a bottle of 2013 cabernet. I was glad I did. Medium-bodied, elegant with dark red fruits and a touch of green pepper, it was the opposite of a heavy California cab. The 2013 is the current release, but I see there’s a 2011 for sale on the website. I’ll admit I’m tempted.

Colterris @ Rabbit Hole
2013 Colterris Cabernet

Like most Colorado wine grapes, Colterris’s come from the Grand Valley AVA in the western part of the state. The AVA is just over fifteen years old – the state’s wine industry is relatively young. But unlike midwestern wine states like Missouri, where the weather is too harsh for most vinifera grapes, Colorado’s climate supports familiar varietals like cabernet, syrah, merlot, and chardonnay. The state’s wineries are also fond of vinifying traditional Bordeaux blending grapes like petit verdot and cabernet franc in single varietals.

Two Vertical Tastings

I happened to stop by BookCliff Vineyards‘ tasting room just north of Boulder, during a special vertical tasting of petit verdot. It didn’t take long for friendly winery owner Ulla Merz to talk me into it.

Wall of fame at BookCliff Vineyards’ Boulder tasting room

The”library” went back just three vintages, but that was enough to show the benefits of aging this wine. The 2014 was full of jammy dark fruit; the 2013 was still fruit forward but more elegant with a little green showing through; the 2012 had a fascinating, funky nose of meat, smoke, a little dark fruit (it showed up as blackberry on the palate), and a hint of eucalyptus. I’d love to see what a few more years would do for it.

Just a couple doors down from BookCliff, housed in the same warehouse-type building, I found Settembre Cellars. Unlike BookCliff and Colterris, Settembre doesn’t have its own vineyards, but the winery is committed to using 100% Colorado grapes. They’re aged in a tiny “cellar” just off the tasting room.

Wine resting in barrels at Settembre Cellars in Boulder

Winemaker Blake Eliasson really believes in aging. His current release syrah is six years old. It was the first offering on the Reserve Red flight, which included vertical tastings of three syrahs and two cabs.

The syrahs were by far my favorites. One whiff of the smoky, meaty 2011 (the current release) is all you need to understand that Eliasson is going for an Old World syrah style, not a jammy Australian-type shiraz. The 2010 had more blue fruit notes; the 2009 was almost port-like with blackberry syrup and cassis notes, developing in the glass to show tar, mint/eucalyptus, and blueberry pie.

Wines With a View

My favorite winery when I lived in Colorado was Creekside Cellars. A scenic mountain drive from Denver leads to the small town of Evergreen, nestled beside the bubbling stream that gives Creekside its name. The winery has a restaurant with a sunny terrace overlooking the rushing water. I’ve spent many a happy afternoon there sipping on flights and munching on cheese.

Creekside Cellars 2013 Cabernet on the sunny creekside patio in Evergreen, CO

But don’t let the idyllic setting fool you. Michelle Cleveland is serious about making wine, and and she makes some good ones – from a crisp riesling to a floral viognier to a slew of robust reds. My favorite has always been the cabernet, but the petit verdot and cabernet franc were showing very well on this visit too.

I was there with friends, so I don’t have detailed tasting notes to share, but trust me, you want to go there. You’ll have to wait for a terrace table, so start with a tasting at the bar, where Michelle will likely pour for you, and owner Bill Donahue will be thrilled to welcome you as a true oenophile, with a twinkle in his eye. Then move outside, and let the patio work its magic.

Finally, for an only-in-Colorado experience, head to Snowy Peaks Winery in the town of Estes Park. It’s on the road to the famed Rocky Mountain National Park, and it’s aptly named, with towering peaks visible from its patio and its window-lined tasting room.

Snowy Peaks
Colorado mourvedre with a view of Rocky Mountain National Park at Snowy Peaks Winery

I really didn’t expect much from the wines here – after all, Estes Park is a tourist town. But I was pleasantly surprised.

Erik Mohr makes French-style wines, and he’s doing some creative things. He has a nice white Rhone blend of roussanne-viognier, a black peppery mourvedre, and a cabernet franc with – no lie – hints of green chili pepper mixed in with the expected bell pepper notes.

Sipping wine in the shadow of the Rockies – not a bad ending to a very satisfying Colorado wine adventure.

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