Hybrid grapes stayed strong through last winter’s frosts

Joel Gros of Eagle, brother of Leroux Creek Winery owner Yvon Gos, admires some of the Chambourcin grapes harvested recently at Leroux Creek. Chambourcin is a winter-hardy French hybrid wine grape that produces a deep-red, fruity wine.

HOTCHKISS — One of the last bright-fall days of October was spent harvesting Chambourcin grapes at Leroux Creek Vineyards near Hotchkiss. Or near Austin, depending whether you drove in from the west or east.

Winery owner and winemaker Yvon Gros adores his French hybrid Chambourcin and the deep, purple-red wine this winter-hardy grape makes, and this year particularly more than others.

He enjoyed a nearly full crop, as compared to the rest of the grape harvest across western Colorado, which was much lighter than normal.

Many vineyards are empty this fall due to the several frosts beginning a year ago and fitfully continuing through April.

The last frost came just as Dick Nunamaker of Cedaredge was thinking his 4 acres of Pinot Gris and Merlot successfully had dodged several earlier cold snaps.

“If it had come a week earlier or a week later, I would have been fine,” lamented Nunamaker as he carried a bucket nearly overloaded with Chambourcin to the waiting bin. “I have nothing this year. There was this very narrow window of time and the frost hit it just right.”

Gros empathized with Nunamaker’s predicament. While he’ll miss making wine this year from Nunamaker’s Pinot Gris (the 2009 Leroux Creek unfiltered Pinot Gris was a hit during the Colorado Mountain Winefest), Gros’ reliance on French hybrid grapes again has paid off.

“I like hybrids, they’re much hardier than vinifera (grapes),” Gros said during a mid-day break when he uncorked several precious bottles from the last few cases of his Pinot Gris. “You don’t have to baby them as much, and they really like it here.”

His rows of vines stretch south toward the North Fork of the Gunnison River and the sunny vineyard benefits from the early and late season sun.

Both are important to a late-ripening grape such as Chambourcin.

Chambourcin was introduced in 1963 and at the time was named Johannes Seyve 26-205 after its developer Johannes Seyve.

Unfortunately, Seyve passed away that same year and left no record of the hybrid’s parentage. Most such hybrids are a cross between the European wine grape Vitis vinifera and at least one, and maybe eight or more, American grape.

Hybrids are more resistant to pests and disease but sometimes develop the “foxy” flavors common to many American grapes. That flavor is hard to describe other than “ugh.”

Chambourcin might be the most-successful of the French hybrids and being winter hardy, it’s found a home in the Midwest.

It’s done so well in those winemaking areas that the Lehigh Valley (Penn.) Wine Trail each fall celebrates Chambourcin Weekend.

Chambourcin produces a deep red, fruity wine that when used as a blend can soften the intensity of a big Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

The wine also benefits from a light touch of oak and bit of aging.

Another of Chambourcin’s features is it ripens late, which is why we were laboring under a surprisingly warm October sun.

“These are beautiful grapes,” said Joel Gros, Yvon’s brother, holding up a cluster he had just clipped off the vine. Joel, who lives in Eagle, also made wine but recently sold his vineyard. “But not Chambourcin. I made Pinot Noir, that’s my favorite.”

The extended summer is needed to not only get the grape phenologically ripe (the seeds brown, the flavors rich and deep) but also develop sugar levels high enough for the fermentation process.

Western Colorado’s long summer allowed the Chambourcin to develop deep flavors of serviceberry, black cherries and blackberries.

Pinot Noir is another late-ripening varietal but it’s a finicky, delicate grape often victim to early frosts.

There were 37 of us moving up and down the rows of grapes, filling plastic bucket after plastic bucket and dumping them in a large bin which Gros then transferred to the destemmer.

Gros said the harvest was “very good” and announced he was leaving the final five rows of grapes still hanging.

“Those are for John Barbier, he wants to make a ros&233; from those,” said Yvon of the popular Grand Junction restaurateur.

Barbier got his grapes picked just before this week’s winter storm hit the area.

“I’m not sure what I’m going to do but it will be something fun,” said Barbier, who owns the Rouge restaurant on Main Street and the Maison La Belle Vie Winery in Palisade.

“I’m going to do some experiments, maybe a blend to make ros&233; and I also am doing a slow fermentation, leaving the grapes on the skins to make a red,” Barbier said. “I just want to try something different.”

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