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Hybrid grapes may be key to Colorado’s wine-making future

By Dave Buchanan

When I die ...,

Chances are things won’t be this good.

Telluride Ski Resort and Rodney Strong Vineyards of Sonoma County have teamed up, bringing together world-class skiing with world-class wines.

What’s not to like?

According to Telluride spokesman Tom Watkinson, Rodney Strong Vineyards and Telluride will partner for special events at Telluride’s flagship restaurant Allred’s and at the “who-needs-alcohol-when-you're-already-this-high” Alpino Vino wine bar, located at 12,000 feet near the top of Gold Hill.

Other events and activities are still being planned, Watkinson said.

“We’re looking at special events for our Ski & Golf Club members as well as some public events such as the local winefest and public wine tastings,” he said.

Rodney Strong Vineyards is perhaps best known as the first Sonoma County winery to release a single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon and the first to plant pinot noir in the Russian River Valley.

Under the direction of winemaker Rick Sayre, the winery’s Alexander’s Crown Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and Chalk Hill Vineyard Chardonnay have become renowned favorites.

We likely won’t see a Telluride appellation, but that leads us into the next subject.

What do Baco Noir, Marquette, Marechal Foch and Vidal have in common, other than you don’t know them as wine grapes?

You’re forgiven for not recognizing these grape varieties. They’re hybrid varietals, crosses between native North American grapes and better-known European vinifera varietals.

For now, the hybrids are more common to Midwest and East Coast wine drinkers, but that’s going to change.

The secret to hybrids’ success is their disease-resistance and cold hardiness, in some cases down to 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Our climate protects us from the bugs and diseases you’ll find in California, France or other moderate grape-growing regions.

But those cold winters also make a grape grower’s life a nightmare.

State viticulturist Horst Caspari has several rows of hybrids at the Rogers Mesa Research Center near Hotchkiss.

Among those hybrid is auxerrois, a white grape from the cooler regions of France and Switzerland.

Pinot blanc wines from Alsace commonly are a blend of pinot blanc and auxerrois.

“It’s been called a poor man’s chardonnay,” Caspari said. “It makes good wines, but it’s difficult to sell if you’re not familiar with it.”

Which is a problem common to all hybrid varietals.

Among the few local winemakers producing wines from hybrids is Yvon Gros at Leroux Creek Vineyards.

He makes a Chambourcin (red) and Cayuga (white), grapes more familiar with East Coast drinkers.

Similarly, Guy Drew of McElmo Canyon near Cortez is turning to hybrids in an effort to have a full crop every year.

Drew has a neighbor growing Bacon Noir, and recent blends of Baco Noir with cabernet sauvignon have proven not only tasty but marketable.

Drew and Gros are believers in what Caspari has been preaching for several years: That growing hybrids, not vinifera, are the key to ensuring a crop in Colorado's borderline grape climate.

Caspari and others hybrid growers were able to produce a crop of grapes in winters when other growers were wiped out.

“The economics of the business say you need eight full crops in a 10-year period,” Caspari said. “With the current selection of varieties, they have three in 10 in Delta County, if they are lucky.”

Caspari, however, says his hybrids have produced a “crop every year since 2004,” when they were planted.

“In this valley you could (grow) vinifera and in most years get a decent crop and good quality,” Caspari said. “But along the Front Range it has to be hybrids.”

The major complaint is that hybrids as standalone wines don’t make good wines.

But when blended with vinifera grapes, the wines can be quite good.

“Who says they have to be stand-alones?” Caspari asked. “With most of these hybrids, a few percent blended to something else changes it.”

The other argument is no one understands hybrid varietals, but since they do so well when blended with more-familiar grapes such as Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, a smart vintner won't reveal what grapes are inside.

"You could label it 'Colorado Red' and if it's good and it's affordable, who will care what the grapes are?" Caspari said.

“And do we really need another chardonnay or merlot?”
 

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