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Rocky Mountain Reds

Red wine varietals are flourishing in Colorado's Wine Country

Browse any list of awards that Colorado wineries have won for their products in recent years, and you'll find that many of the winners are red wines.

It's no accident that red wines seem to have a corner on the Colorado market. A significant percentage of the grapes grown in Colorado's Grand Valley are red varieties, says Glenn Foster, owner of the Colorado Wine Room and Talon Winery in Fruita.

"We seem to do well with quite a few (red varieties)," Foster says. Merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah -- three prominent red grape varieties -- together make up about half of Colorado's grape production, he says.

"All of these red grape varieties can make wonderful wine here in Colorado," Foster says. "We have a climate and soil conditions here that are conducive to producing good red wines."

Producing a high-quality Colorado red wine takes a combination of factors, says Bob Witham, owner of Two Rivers Winery, 2087 Broadway in Grand Junction.

"The thing that causes the reds in the (Grand) Valley to be good wines is that the varieties are acclimated to our climate," Witham says. Red grape varieties grown in arid Colorado have thicker skins than reds grown in wetter climates, he says.

Red wines are made by fermenting the grape juice in the skins and seeds of the grapes. Juice from red-grape varieties is almost clear, but it takes on color from its contact with grape skins during fermentation. Skins and seeds also add tannins, which are acids that help give red wine its character.

Red wines are aged in oak barrels, and the types of oak and ages of the barrels are crucial to the quality of the finished product, Witham says. Different types of oak impart different flavors, and newer barrels can produce more flavor intensity than older barrels, he says.

Finally, some red wines are blended with other reds to give them unique characteristics and different complexities.

Juggling and balancing all of those factors to produce a high-quality wine is the winemaker's job.

"A skilled winemaker is key," Witham says. Winemakers determine the best way to push the fermenting juice through the skins and seeds to develop the right mix of color and acidity. Then they determine the type and age of barrels to be used for aging the wine. Finally, they decide how much blending, if any, is appropriate to create the perfect product.

Of course, the ultimate judge of a wine's quality is the consumer. But how can a consumer find out which Colorado reds are best?

For wine buyers, here's where the fun starts. Most wineries in the Grand Valley and throughout the rest of Colorado have tasting rooms where potential buyers can sample a variety of wines before deciding which to purchase. Wineries typically carry their own brands, although some also sell non-competing varieties from other wineries.

Many liquor stores in the Grand Junction area carry a variety of locally produced wines. For example, The Colorado Wine Room, 455 Kokopelli Blvd. in Fruita (next to the Colorado Welcome Center), sells many different varieties.

"Wine is such a personal preference type of beverage that we try to have a lot of different lines available," Foster says.

Colorado red wines also are available at restaurants throughout the Grand Junction area. For example, locally produced wines are on the wine lists at 626 on Rood, located at 626 Rood Ave. in downtown Grand Junction; The Winery, 642 Main St. downtown; il Bistro Italiano, 400 Main St.; and Dolce Vita, 336 Main St., as well as at many other restaurants in the city.