For independent travelers seeking to visit interesting wine regions of the world, Bordeaux, Napa Valley and the Rhine Valley might come to mind. But there are plenty of other options; those looking for one of the most unusual, fast-growing regions might consider the burgeoning wine country of western Colorado.
West of the Rocky Mountains, amid a stunning landscape of spectacular red cliffs and winding canyons, lie two adjacent wine trails: the Grand Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), and the West Elk AVA. With more than 30 wineries, vineyards and tasting rooms, the two areas produce almost all the grapes grown in Colorado.
The wineries are situated in and around Grand Junction, Colorado, the state’s major city on its western slope. Major airlines serve the city’s regional airport with non-stop and direct flights from Denver, Salt Lake City and other cities throughout the United States. For travelers who prefer trains, Amtrak’s popular, scenic California Zephyr route though the Rockies stops in Grand Junction. Drive time is four hours from Denver or Salt Lake City, seven from Albuquerque and ten from Phoenix.
The grape-growing climateOnce there, you’ll immediately sense what sets western Colorado’s wine apart from other wineries: the climate. Vineyards in Colorado are nestled in the temperate, high-elevation river valleys and mesas of Mesa and Delta counties. Ranging in elevation from 4,000 to 6,400 feet, the grape-growing regions are among the highest in the world.
The “continental climate'” creates typical day-to-night temperature variations of 25-30 degrees during the grape maturation months of August and September. Long, hot daylight hours of intense high-altitude sunlight mature the fruit completely and build the natural sugars. The cool evenings cause the grapes to retain the acids so vital to premium winemaking.
The wineries produce a myriad of wines, ranging from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to Pinot Noir and GewÃ¼rtztraminer — and almost everything in between. You’ll also find grape, honey and fruit wines, hard ciders, and even a late-harvest ice wine.
The wineries themselves offer some unique characteristics, too. Carlson Vineyards has a feline naming convention for its wines, for instance. Canyon Wind maintains an underground barrel room, while Terror Creek operates the highest-altitude vineyard in North America.
Personal, local and inviting
The up-and-coming nature of western Colorado wine country is conducive to the independent traveler, with small, welcoming rural towns, and winery owners who are the winemakers/vintners themselves, often on-site to visit and tell their story of why they are in the wine business.
Along with grapes, the Grand Valley is famous for its peaches, pears, cherries and apples (famous to the point where people drive hundreds — sometimes thousands — of miles to the harvests). The same climate that makes for good grape growing makes for tremendous other fruits as well.
Fruit stands throughout the area make for interesting stops between wineries, with an abundance of local produce creating plenty of opportunities for cost-effective meals. Several orchards in the town of Palisade offer tours through their facilities and lands for a close-up view of fruit varieties, organic growing, picking, community-supported agriculture, selection, packing, distribution and marketing.
During summer and fall harvest seasons, check out the annual Palisade PeachFest and Colorado WineFest. The independent traveler will appreciate hands-on workshops, wine and food-pairing events, chef demonstrations, grape stomps, winemaker competitions, jazz concerts and even a bicycle tour of the vineyards.
Beyond the wineriesBeyond wine country, the Grand Junction area is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. The Colorado National Monument, Colorado River and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park offer hiking, biking and water adventures. You’ll see bands of rare wild horses at the Bookcliff Wild Horse area.
Two national scenic byways steer the traveler through some of the area’s best scenery. Following the Grand Mesa byway to the top, you’ll be on the world’s largest flat-topped mountain at 10,000 feet, finding aspen and spruce groves, and 300 lakes. The West Elk Loop byway flows through both the Grand Valley and West Elk trails.
Located in the heart of the Colorado-Utah Dinosaur Diamond, the area also is internationally known for its wealth of dinosaur excavation sites, exhibits, fossils and hands-on paleontological activities. At the Museum of Western Colorado’s Dinosaur Journey, visitors can get up-close and personal with dinosaur skeletons, a working paleontology lab, and realistic robotic dinosaurs. Amateur paleontologists can join single- and multi-day digs.
Where to stay
As a major hub between Denver and Salt Lake City on U.S. Interstate 70, Grand Junction offers myriad — and affordable — hotels, resorts, bed and breakfast inns, and campgrounds. From in-town hotel and motel accommodation to comfortable farmhouse inns, you’ll overlook the famous bluffs of the Grand Mesa Plateau and Book Cliffs. The lodging link at visitgrandjunction.com provides a sortable database of options.
For a more remote adventure, head southwest of town to the new Gateway Canyons Resort. It is set in prime territory for mountain and rock climbing, river sports, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, plenty of solitude — and even an on-site auto museum.
At an altitude of 4,507 feet, and with more than 275 days of sunshine annually, Grand Junction enjoys warm summers and moderate spring, fall and winter seasons. Independent travelers can discover and explore one of Colorado’s lesser-known areas and one of America’s — and the world’s — up-and-coming wine regions.
All photos in this post are courtesy of Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau.