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BookCliff Vineyards keeps Colorado in the Cups

By Dave Buchanan

As I noted earlier this week on (both???) my Facebook page(s) – which is a frustrating story all its own – John Garlich and Ulla Merz of BookCliff Vineyards in Boulder recently won their third Jefferson Cup award, the top prize in the annual Jefferson Cup Invitational Wine Competition.

That makes three (2010, 2012, 2013) wins in five years for BookCliff, with other Colorado wineries winning in 2009 (Boulder Creek) and 2011 (Canyon Wind Cellars).

This year’s winning wine was the BookCliff 2011 Reserve Cabernet Franc, and we’d like to think the win demonstrates at least a couple of promising developments about the Colorado wine industry. One, that Colorado wine can hold its own against any wines produced in the U.S. and two, that Garlich and Merz (and assistant winemaker Justin Jannusch) have learned how to make the best of what might soon be Colorado’s signature red grape.

A bit about the Jefferson Cup, devised by the renowned wine writer Doug Frost (who also graciously wrote the forward to my latest book, “Drink It In: Wine Guide to Western Colorado”) and one of the more-prestigious wine competitions in the U.S. today.

The Jefferson Cup is the only wine competition that recognizes top wines from all of America’s wine regions. This year, 22 states took home honors with 12 states having wineries awarded the highest award, the Jefferson Cup. In all, 25 Jefferson Cups were awarded. And this is a real cup, not a round doubloon hanging from a colored ribbon but something Ulla compared to a football trophy, easily big enough to drink your wine from.

And, unlike other, open-to-all wine competitions, the Jefferson Cup is an invitational (hence the name, right?) where 700 wines are pre-selected to “exemplify top viticulture and winemaking throughout America,” as the press release says.

What’s also important, especially for Colorado winemakers who might be wondering what the future holds if this year’s cold weather serves up another short crop of other vitis vinifera grapes, is Cabernet Franc might be cold-hardy enough to be the industry’s savior.

That’s a whole ‘nother topic, one for next week’s column, but after the double-whammy cold snaps of winter and spring 2013, which decimated the wine grape crop in most of western Colorado, Cabernet Franc was the only red grape this summer to have substantial survival (Riesling was the best-surviving white grape). No Tempranillo, almost no Merlot, very little Syrah/Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon did a meager OK, Petit Verdot so-so, but Cab Franc lived through it all. Just sayin’, is all.

BookCliff was a pioneer in making a Cab Franc varietal bottling and as Ulla said during a phone call today, they soon discovered Cabernet Franc fits BookCliff’s winemaking style.

“Our first (Cab Franc vintage) was 2002,” she said. “I think we were one of the first wineries to make 100 percent Cab Franc.”

Usually used as a blending wine to add finesse and pepper, violets and a bit of tobacco hints to heavier Bordeaux-style wines, today many wineries in Colorado are making a Cab Franc varietal bottling.

“Cabernet Franc has worked well for us, it seems to fit our style of winemaking,” said Ulla, noting that among other awards the 2010 Reserve Cabernet Franc won a gold medal and was named the Best Cab Franc under $30 at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition and also received a double gold in the 2013 Colorado Governor’s Cup wine competition.

BookCliff uses only French oak in making Cabernet Franc, the barrels made by a specific barrel-maker familiar with the winery, Ulla said. “What happened in 2002, we found we had only one or two barrels, and it’s been (small production) since,” she said. “Every winemaker has to find what works for them and its always been French oak for us on the Cabernet Franc.”

BookCliff also has a 2013 Jefferson Cup nominee (just under the Cup winners) with its 2012 Colorado Petit Verdot plus its Ensemble 2011 Red Blend and the 2012 Colorado Malbec won Medals of Merit.

Other Colorado wineries also winning awards at the 2013 Jefferson Cup included Anemoi, Canyon Wind Cellars, Grande River Vineyards, and Winery at Holy Cross Abbey. Congratulations to all.

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