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Trying a wine the winemaker doesn’t like

By Dave Buchanan

Ken Dunn laughs when you ask him about rkatsiteli, the curious white grape he grows in his Hermosa Vineyards on East Orchard Mesa.

He pours a visitor a taste of the pale-gold wine but refrains from one himself.

“I’m not a big fan of rkatsiteli,” he says with a shrug, happily admitting he prefers red wine. “I can’t stand it but the customers seem to like it.”

Perhaps that's a bit of a lukewarm endorsement for this ancient grape whose roots go back more than 3,000 years to ancient Greece.

Rkatsiteli is a cold-hardy varietal, popular in the Northeast and a subject of speculation in California and Colorado, where some winemakers are looking at winter-hardy grapes to replace the popular but less cold-tolerant vinifera grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot.

In spite of his antipathy, Dunn makes a delightful rkatsiteli wine, with floral notes on the nose and hints of almonds, dried fruit and herbs and a bit of spice on the tongue.

It’s reminiscent of gewurtztraminer and viognier, two other floral-spicy varietals Dunn grows among the 17 he has scattered across his two vineyards of five and six acres.

His latest rkatsiteli is the 2006 vintage ($15) vinified to what I guessed was off-dry (Dunn patiently insisted it’s closer to the sweet level) to balance the grape’s natural high acidity.

According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, rkatsiteli was the most planted grape variety in the pre-break-up Soviet Union and once may have been the most-common white wine grape in the world. It’s grown in several Eastern European countries as well as China, where it’s known as baiyu.

So why does Dunn have rkatsiteli?

“When we first planted this (in 1993), we weren’t sure what would grow here,” he said, leaning comfortably against the well-polished bar in his cozy tasting room that doubles as his winery and barrel storage off C Road. “That’s why we have 17 varietals.”

For the first eight years or so he supplied grapes to commercial and home winemakers but that changed abruptly shortly before the 2001 harvest.

“Two days before harvest I called the guy who was to buy my grapes and he said, ‘Oh, I forgot to tell you, I can’t take them this year,” Dunn said with a laugh and shake of his head. “I didn’t have much choice. Two days later, my (application for a winemaker’s license) was in the mail.”

The grapes needed to be picked, so Dunn picked and crushed the grapes and stored the juice “in every used chest freezer I could get my hands on.”

When his license finally arrived in late December, it was in time for that frozen juice to become Hermosa Vineyards’ 2001 and first-ever vintage.

The years haven’t all been easy. He dodged complete destruction during the vine-killing deep freeze of Dec. 2009 but like so many of the Grand Valley's vineyards, the damage was extensive enough there wasn’t much hanging for the 2010 vintage.

“That’s it, all of it,” said Dunn, pointing at a small oak cask of cabernet franc perched atop two of the regular-sized 60-gallon barrels lining the walls of the converted garage. “Twelve cases plus three gallons.”

He laughed again, as if amazed at the good fortune that allows him to make and sell good wines, even in the years when nature isn’t cooperative.

“There are a lot worse ways to spend your time,” he said.

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