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Grand Valley wine country ‘cradle of the world’

By Dave Buchanan

"This valley," said Max Ariza, waving his arms and trying to figure if he was facing east or west, "grows grapes from France, Spain, Germany and Italy. It's like the cradle of the world."

And like most cradles, it hold something, in this case a wine industry, still in its infancy.

"Colorado's wine industry is like this," Ariza said, cupping his hands together. "The rest of the world is ..." and he stretches out his arms.

Ultimately, that's a very good thing, said Ariza during his seminar titled "Same Grape, Different Wine" during Friday's opening session of the 19th annual Colorado Mountain Winefest.

Ariza's background in wine is deep and varied. A certified sommelier and former wine director for big-name hotels in California, Las Vegas and Denver (including the Brown Palace and Adams Mark hotels), he's now an instructor at Denver's Johnson & Wales Univeristy, bringing his well-rounded working knowledge to the academic world.

While Friday's seminar ostensibly was concerned with how winemakers can impact the final versions of the same grape, Ariza roamed broadly.

His conversation turned to such topics as the pros and cons of commercial vs. domestic yeast, how different countries measure sugar levels in wine and the desirability of phenological (physical) ripeness in a grape rather than simply getting your grapes to sugar ripeness.

"Don't measure sugar levels, look at the seed to judge ripeness," Ariza lectured in his kindly informative way. "If the seed still is green, you'll get uncontrollable tannins" and what he called "disjointed wines."

His wine selection included two Viogniers (Bookcliff  Vineyards' 2009 and Creekside Cellars' 2009); two Whitewater Hill Vineyards 2008 Chardonnay, one unoaked and the other a Barrel Select; two Whitewater HIll 2008 Merlots, one with neutral oak; Two 2008 Syrahs, (Bookcliff and Creekside); and a Bookcliff 2009 Muscat Blanc dry and a Bookcliff 2008 Muscat Blanc sweet.

Ariza critically examined comparative acidities, the impact or lack of from the oak, the winemakers' control of tannins and the balance each wine demonstrated.

He wasn't interested in grading the wines. Instead, he wanted to show the audience that a winemaker, such as Nancy Janes (Whitewater Hill) can take the same grape juice and have two different finished wines without losing the true characteristics of the grape.

"It's all the same juice, treated a little bit differently," Ariza said. "There is no right or wrong answer, it's all in what the winemaker wants to do."

He's a big proponent of Colorado wine, and said drinking local wines is a way of supporting sustainability.

Compared to other states that allow labeled varietals to have high percentages of other grapes, Colorado's tight regulations offer the consumer security that the label says exactly what's in the bottle.

"Living in Colorado and drinking Colorado wines is part of the experience, like being part of nature or the terroir," Ariza said. "And when you buy a Colorado wine, you have peace of mind. This wine industry gives you exactly what they say and have the heart for."

The Colorado Mountain Winefest continues Saturday with the popular Festival in the Park at Palisade's Riverbend Park. Tickets are available at the gate. Max and I hope to see you there.

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