Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What grape did you say?

The wine world revolves around a few well-known grape varieties. Most people know the grapes cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay. When one thinks of the world's most famous wine regions, they usually produce one or more of these grapes. Colorado is no different. Merlot, riesling, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are Colorado's most widely planted grapes, closely followed by syrah and cabernet franc. While many excellent wines are produced from these traditional vinifera cultivars, Colorado also produces interesting wines from lesser-known grapes. Two that I have enjoyed this past week used some of these lesser-known grape varieties.

Among these lesser-known varieties include Vitis vinifera and French-American hybrids. While most people know the names of the top few grape cultivars, there are hundreds of other varieties of the traditional winemaking grape species. Usually limited to the regions in which they are native, these grapes often yield  unique and high-quality wines but remain difficult to sell due to their hard to pronounce names. On the other hand, hybrid grape varieties have a bastardized reputation. Vinifera cultivars have been crossbred with other grapes species that have traits which allow them to be cultivated in cold or other marginal grape-growing regions. While they often have a poor reputation, Cornell University and other viticultural research institutions have experimented with and released cultivars that lack the negative enological characteristics and highlight the positive viticultural traits that make these grapes interesting options for wineries.

Lemberger, the vinifera grape cultivar also known as Blaufränkisch in Austria, has found a home in Colorado. The German name (Lemberger) for this grape is derived from its importation from Lemberg, in what was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but is now Slovenia. While it is the second-most planted red grape in Austria today, Lemberger is also found in small amounts in Germany, Washington State and New York State, in addition to Colorado.

Even less common than elusive vinifera grapes, hybrids have been bred by viticulturalists to combine the pleasing flavors of Vitis vinifera with the climate-hardy and disease-resistant native American and Asiatic grape species. Hybrids such as Baco Noir, Marechal Foch and Vidal Blanc have been a part of the northeastern U.S. wine industry for decades. Foch is a inter-specific hybrid containing Vitis vinifera, Vitis raparia and Vitis rupestris heritages, that is starting to find its place in Colorado. Foch was developed in Alsace, France by Ferdinand Foch. Another hybrid found in Colorado, Corot Noir (formerly NY70) was developed by Bruce Reisch at Cornell University. While consumers may be hesitant to buy wines with lesser-known grapes, some wineries have gotten past this preconception by giving these wines fanciful names.

Carlson Vineyards of Palisade, CO opened their doors in 1988. Situated in the Grand Valley AVA, Carlson Vineyards holds the fourth-oldest winery license in the state. Carlson has fun giving their wines names inspired by local themes – like Tyrannosaurus Red and Prairie Dog Blush. The T-Red Lemberger refers to the discovery of dinosaur bones in the Grand Valley in the early 1900s. While people may not know what Lemberger is, they can easily recognize the short-armed dinosaur raising his glass on the colorful label.

Jack Rabbit Hill is another winery making use of non-traditional grapes. Located just west of the West Elks AVA on Redlands Mesa at 6200 feet above sea level, Jack Rabbit Hill makes organic and biodynamic wines from their 70-acre farm. All of their estate wines are Demeter-certified biodynamic and organic, and their non-estate wines are single-vineyard bottlings made from certified organic grapes. While most of their wines are varietally labeled, their amalgamation of estate vinifera and hybrid grapes is simply called Barn Red. The name evokes images rolling farmland and red barns with fresh and pure ingredients

2009 Carlson Vineyards Tyrannosaurus Red, Grand Valley, Colorado

This unique wine is crafted from 100% Colorado-grown Lemberger from the Grand Valley AVA. This quaffable red is almost Beaujolais-like with very fruity and bubblegum-like aromas. Showing a light-bodied fruitiness, with light tannins and a slight pepperiness, this wine is an interesting, easy-drinking wine that that should be added to your summer drinking list. 14.4% abv Gift from family $13. Good (tasted 3/5/11)

2008 Jack Rabbit Hill Barn Red, Colorado Red Wine

This blend of malbec, marechal foch, petit verdot, cabernet franc and NY70 (corot noir) uses two French-American hybrids; Marechal Foch and Corot Noir. Grown on Jack Rabbit Hill, at approximately 6200 ft of elevation, near the small town of Hotchkiss, this collection of grapes leads to an inky purple wine that yield interesting aromas that include dark fruit and a slight pepperiness. On the palate, the wine is lighter than one would guess based on the color. It is earthy, but with black and blue fruit flavors combined with smooth tannins and a long finish. All I can say is yum! 13.5% abv Purchased $16. Good/Very Good (tasted 3/8/11)

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