Convinced he could open my eyes to a new frontier of American wine, Josh Niernberg, chef and owner of Bin 707 Foodbar in Grand Junction, Colorado, sent me a box of vinos from his home state. And after crushing each unique bottle, I said to myself again and again, “Hot damn—this is from . . . Colorado?”
A fourth-generation Denver native, Niernberg now lives and works with his wife and business partner, Jodi, in Grand Junction, the epicenter of Colorado winemaking. With high elevation, volcanic soil, minimal rainfall, hot days and a river in the valley below, Grand Junction’s surrounding Grand Valley AVA has often been compared to Mendoza, Argentina. Today, international varieties (including Malbec, of course) thrive across more than 600 acres of planted vineyards, but Cabernet Franc is the star. “The grape really shows off our unique terroir and higher-altitude growing regions,” Niernberg says.
Meanwhile, the highest-altitude vineyards in Colorado (and in the entire northern hemisphere) are located an hour southeast of Grand Valley, in the West Elks AVA. With its rivers and rolling hills, some people, like Provençal winemaker Yvon Gros of Leroux Creek Vineyards, say the terrain resembles Provence, France. Recognized 10 years after Grand Valley, the comparatively tiny, cooler, more mountainous West Elks includes more than 100 acres of vineyards in the Rocky Mountains that range from 5,400 to 6,400 feet above sea level.
Due to their differences, “the whites and thinner-skinned reds tend to perform very well in West Elks, while the thicker-skinned and more resilient grapes tend to do better in the high desert that defines the Grand Valley,” Niernberg says. A bit wetter than the Grand Valley, West Elks is “able to produce, in my opinion, far more delicate wines like Gewürztraminer or Pinot Noir,” he says.
So why haven’t we been drinking incredible, nuanced Colorado wines for years? For the last several decades, most Colorado winemakers were either focused on lower-quality sweet wines or chasing mainstream trends in vain. Whether producing malolactic fermented, big-bodied Chardonnay in the 90s or Sideways-inspired Pinot Noir in the 00s, Colorado winemakers would attempt to serve national demand for fashionable international grapes, but couldn’t compete with powerhouse regions in California or the Pacific Northwest.
Thankfully, Colorado has finally begun to focus on what actually works best in the ground. “To me, the exciting winemakers are those that are identifying what grapes perform for them, and then making the best damned wines possible from those grapes,” Niernberg explains, “rather than the ‘something for everyone’ ethos of a lot of the old-school producers.”
Many of Niernberg’s favorite wines are showcased at his restaurant, Bin 707, which prioritizes local Colorado wine and food. The mission, he says, was motivated by the 2008 recession, and allowed him to support local brewers, distillers, ranchers, cheese makers, farmers and, of course, winemakers.
In fact, when it was founded in 2009, Bin 707 focused almost exclusively on Colorado. It has since expanded to include both New and Old World “naturally produced” and biodynamic wines, but the restaurant’s Colorado products “remain both some of our best-selling and best-performing wines on our list in terms of pairings and values,” Niernberg says.
If you’re thirsty for some Rocky Mountain juice, here are four of Niernberg’s favorite wineries, each with its own unique contributions to the scene.
A portmanteau of Colorado and the Latin word terris (meaning “from the land”), Colterris uses 100 percent locally grown grapes—and does so exceptionally well. “Their fantastic Bordeaux varietals are some of the best-selling wines at our restaurant,” Niernberg reveals of the Grand Valley winery. “[Colterris co-owner] Scott High walked me through some of his Malbec vineyards, and the soil, temperature, elevation and sunlight of his vineyards are nearly identical to those of Mendoza.” And while Colterris’s Coral—a dry Cabernet Sauvignon rosé—is Bin 707’s all-time best seller, Niernberg is especially fond of its fruity, floral Cabernet Franc. “It’s one of the best values available and carries a sense of place from the terroir that is totally ‘Colorado,’” he says.
“Carlson Vineyards is a perfect representation of the kind of ‘new guard’ or ‘new school’ of [Colorado] winemakers,” Niernberg says. Founder Garrett Portra works with varieties such as Gewürztraminer or Lemberger (also known as Blaufränkisch) that are still largely unpopular among mainstream consumers but perform particularly well in the Grand Valley. “The vineyard has a funky, little microclimate with some north- and east-facing fruit protecting the more delicate varieties from our intensely hot summers and long days,” he explains. “Both his Tyrannosaurus Red and Rivers Edge red blend use Lemberger to create really accessible, affordable, unique wines with more balance and structure than one would expect for the price.
Jack Rabbit Hill
Lance and Anna Hanson are perhaps better known for their Peak Spirits brand (which produces CapRock vodka, gin and brandy), or even their New Avalon Grower Ciders, but their Jack Rabbit Hill Farm wines are incredibly special. Niernberg’s first non-Grand Valley pick is also the only USDA certified-organic and Biodynamic-certified winery in Colorado, growing nearly a dozen varieties across 18 acres of land in the North Fork Valley (of which the West Elks AVA is a part). “I love their Rieslings,” Niernberg says. “Namely, their superlong ferment, current vintage 2009 Mitzi’s Reserve Riesling.”
The Infinite Monkey Theorem
“If we had a rock star of the group, it would be Ben Parsons of Infinite Monkey Theorem,” Niernberg declares. That’s because Parsons was canning and kegging excellent wine at his 15,000-square-foot urban winery in Denver’s artsy RiNo (River North) district before it was cool. Plus, he’s willing to experiment with mixing different Colorado vintages and AVAs, and he produced Colorado’s first méthode champenoise sparkling wine using Grand Valley Albariño. The man dry-hopped Sauvignon Blanc in a can for God’s sake. As Niernberg puts it, “Infinite Monkey Theorem is definitely following the beat of its own drum.”
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