Hermosa grows 17 varietals on East Orchard Mesa

Winemaker Ken Dunn of Hermosa Vineyards lays hands on his full 2010 vintage, a small single barrel of cabernet franc. That’s 25 cases plus the three gallons in a glass carboy.

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 an ounce or so of the pale-gold wine for a visitor 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.”

Admittedly, a lukewarm endorsement for this ancient grape whose roots go back more than 3,000 years to ancient Greece.

It’s a cold-hardy varietal, popular in the Northeast and a subject of speculation in California and Colorado, where some winemakers are seeking winter-hardy grapes to augment 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 on the south side of the Colorado River.

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.

In China, it’s known as baiyu.

So why rkatsiteli?

“When we first planted this (in 1993), we weren’t sure what would grow here,” Dunn said, leaning comfortably against the well-polished bar in his cozy tasting room that doubles as his winery and barrel storage at 3269 3/4 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 just as his 2001 crop was ready for picking.

“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,” he said.

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.”

The license arrived in time for that frozen juice to become Hermosa Vineyards’ 2001 and first-ever vintage.

He dodged complete destruction during the vine-killing deep freeze of December 2009, but like many of the Grand Valley’s vineyards that year, the damage was extensive enough that there wasn’t much hanging for either the 2010 or 2011 vintages.

“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 from 2010 plus three gallons of syrah from 2011.”

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.

Hermosa Vineyards’ tasting room is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., but with winter coming, you might call first, 640-0940.


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