Cabernet sauvignon. Merlot. Chardonnay. Many of us are familiar with these grapes (or, at the very least, the tasty wines they produce). They’re household names today thanks in large part to their long history of flourishing in some of the most prominent wine regions of Europe.
Because of their reputation for making great wines across the Atlantic, many early American growers and winemakers also planted them with gusto, including some in Colorado. But, as it turns out, these European grapes are not always the best fit for the Centennial State’s fickle weather, which gets more and more unpredictable every year because of climate change.
Now, a new cohort of young, upstart grapes has made its way onto the Colorado wine scene: cold-hardy hybrid cultivars. By crossing European grapes with North America’s native species — and then doing a lot of meticulous, gene-selection magic that can take years — scientists are creating a diverse array of new grapes that could give Colorado a competitive edge in the broader wine scene and help ensure farmers have a more consistent harvest year after year.
Though European grapes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon in Colorado, more and more growers are also now planting hybrids to help diversify their crops. And after a few years of trial and error, Colorado winemakers have also now perfected the art of turning these new-on-the-scene grapes into stellar wines.
“These are definitely part of Colorado’s future,” said Joe Flynn, winemaker at Palisade’s Plum Creek Vineyards. “With the talent and the terrain we have here, we’re going to be able to take these hybrids and actually really highlight them to become something unique for our environment.”
Initially, many Colorado growers and winemakers were skeptical of these cold-hardies, as they call them colloquially. The European grapes are so popular and so well-known that they worried consumers would see bottles with unfamiliar names like “aromella” and “la crescent” in the Colorado aisle of their favorite liquor stores and keep right on walking.
But a handful of extreme weather events in recent years — including the devastating, record-setting October 2020 hard freeze that wiped out 70 to 100 percent of grapes in the Grand Valley on the Western Slope — have forced some to reconsider their stance.
In the early 2000s, hybrids made up less than 1 percent of grapes grown in Colorado. Today, that number is closer to 20 percent, according to Horst Caspari, a viticulture professor at Colorado State University and the state’s viticulturist, who’s been experimenting with these cultivars for the last 20 or so years.
“The overall trend is obviously warmer temperatures, but there’s also the caveat that (climate change) comes with more swings — there are more extremes,” said Caspari.
Changing consumer preferences, driven largely by up-for-anything Millennials and Gen-Zers, have helped some Colorado winemakers come around to hybrids, too.
“These younger generations aren’t collecting $60 to $70 bottles of cabernet sauvignon to lay down for years; they’re wanting to spend $60 to $70 on as many bottles as they can get that aren’t cheap, horrible tasting wines,” said Flynn. “They want good, well-balanced, approachable wines, and a lot of times those are blends. They don’t really care what’s in it, as long as it’s good, balanced, tasty wine.”
So the next time you pop into your favorite wine shop or tasting room, snag a bottle (or several) of delightful Colorado wines made from these cold-hardy hybrid cultivars. Though they may be unfamiliar to you right now, let your tastebuds be the judge. And impress your friends as a trendsetter — soon, these grapes may be household names, too.
Aromella’s citrus and white flower notes, plus its “really cool” acid profile, are what first drew Flynn to this hybrid white wine grape in 2020, when he made a 100 percent aromella pét-nat that he — and plenty of other people — really loved. (Short for pétillant naturel, a French term that loosely translates to “naturally sparkling,” pét-nat is a unique style of bubbly.)
Critics are taking note, too. That same year, he also blended aromella — which was developed by scientists at Cornell and released in 2013 — with riesling and chardonnay to create the winery’s 2020 Palisade Festival blend, which won a double-gold medal (the highest award possible) in the 2021 Colorado Governor’s Cup competition.
Developed by Minnesota breeder Tom Plocher and released in 2009, petite pearl is a complex red wine grape that delivers some seriously interesting flavors and aromas. Carboy Winery, which now has four locations throughout Colorado with the fall 2021 opening of its new Palisade site, has been experimenting with petite pearl since 2017 — to great success. At the 2022 Los Angeles Invitational Wine & Spirits Challenge, for example, judges gave Carboy’s 2018 Petite Pearl a score of 92 (out of 100 possible points).
“It’s really dark and dank like rich plum juice, but it’s not sweet,” said Kevin Webber, Carboy’s CEO. “It’s got savory tomato broth, tomato vine characteristics to it. It’s got more of that tomato-leaf kind of herbaceousness to it. It’s fresh, dark and robust, yet it’s incredibly balanced and smooth. It’s a great food wine and it’s great on its own.”
Verona, also created by Plocher and released in 2015, is quickly becoming a favorite of the team at Palisade’s Sauvage Spectrum, which will soon be opening a second tasting room in Ouray. And it’s easy to understand (and taste) why: Their Sparklet Candy Red sparkling wine, made from 100 percent Verona, earned a double-gold medal in the 2021 Colorado Governor’s Cup.
“It’s like grape punch and cherries and cotton candy, if done right,” said Kaibab Sauvage, who’s grown grapes in the Grand Valley for more than two decades and co-founded the winery in 2020. “But then there’s also raspberries for sure and a hint of tobacco. You even get that in our sparkling red, it adds some complexity with just a hint on the finish.”
Verona also pairs perfectly with petite pearl, which is why Sauvage Spectrum winemaker and co-founder Patric Matysiewski brought the two hybrids together in the winery’s 2020 Domaine Red, which earned a double gold and a score of 96 at the 2022 Sunset International Wine Competition.
“They’re like polar opposites that just really complement each other,” said Sauvage.
Created by researchers at the University of Minnesota and made available to growers in 2002, la crescent is a cold-hardy white grape with notes of stone fruit, citrus and tropical fruit.
Palisade’s Carlson Vineyards has been using la crescent to make orange wine, a style of white wine that gets its peachy hue by keeping the grape skins in contact with the juice during fermentation. That wine, called Contact, is made under the High Desert Wine Lab label in partnership with Josh Niernberg, the chef and owner of Grand Junction’s Bin 707 and Taco Party restaurants, where it’s served as the house orange wine.
“It’s gone over really well,” said Garrett Portra, who co-owns Carlson Vineyards with his wife, Cailin. “It has lots of dry apricot and kind of a grassy smell. It’s very reminiscent of a hazy IPA. It’s a fun one to work with.”
Developed at the University of Illinois in 1965, traminette is one of the oldest cold-hardy hybrids — and one of the tastiest. Like one of its parent grapes, gewürztraminer, traminette is a bold, aromatic white that plays well with other hybrids.
“We like to call it the gewürztraminer’s little sister,” said Flynn, who blended it with la crescent, itasca and aromella in Plum Creek’s 2021 Palisade Festival Blend. “It’s very similar in taste and flavor profiles, offering notes of ginger, lychee fruit and white flowers.”
With acid and flavor profiles that are reminiscent of European grapes, itasca also comes from the University of Minnesota and is starting to take hold in Colorado.
“It’s more peach and apricot, particularly peach,” said Caspari. “It’s a really nice white wine you can enjoy without having the high acid that you get on some of the other cold-hardy cultivars.”
Other hybrid grapes to watch for in Colorado wines:
- St. Vincent, a mysterious red wine grape with unknown parentage first discovered in Missouri.
- Chambourcin, a longstanding French-American hybrid that dates back to the mid-19th century.
- Vignoles, a highly aromatic white wine grape with another slightly murky backstory.
- Marquette, a red wine grape developed at the University of Minnesota and released in 2006.
- Vidal blanc, a white hybrid developed in France in the 1930s.
- Brianna, a white wine grape developed by Wisconsin breeder Elmer Swenson and released in the early 2000s.
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