High in elevation and anchored by the visually stunning Grand Mesa, the largest flat-top mountain in the world, western Colorado wine country is a study in superlatives.
The state has two official AVAs, Grand Valley and West Elks, which range in elevation from 1,200m-2,100m, making them among the highest vineyards in the world. Indeed, Colorado’s high desert has captivating scenery but it tends to be overshadowed by the deluxe appeal of the state’s many ski towns.
Here, close to the Utah border, you’ll find fewer tourists, more locals, the world’s second-largest concentration of geologic arches (Rattlesnake Canyon), and plenty of award-winning wine.
See also: Katie’s Idaho travel guide and look out for Texas, North Carolina and Michigan coming soon
With a truncated growing season, unpredictable weather patterns and dramatic diurnal temperature changes (upwards of 10°C), many vintners describe winemaking here as a challenging adventure.
‘We never know what Mother Nature is going to throw at us. You can’t set a clock by nature’s whim the way you can in California wine country,’ explains Kevin Webber, co-founder of Carboy Winery, one of Colorado’s largest wineries.
The Grand Valley’s arid, high-elevation setting has soils that tend to be more alkaline than those of Napa, yielding wines that taste more Old World than New World.
What grapes are grown?
Not far from Grand Valley, snug in the embrace of the Rocky Mountains, the West Elks AVA is home to true mountain terroir, with grapes cultivated at altitudes as high as 1,950m. The result is varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, which can tolerate a cooler growing season with intense UVA sunlight.
The Grand Valley region is home to a mix of the old west and the new west, blended with the region’s historic mining culture. The towns of Grand Junction and Palisade are 12 minutes apart and either one makes a good base for wine touring – several wineries have tasting rooms in both towns.
In Colorado, getting outside is almost a requirement, so tour the tasting rooms in your hiking boots, or rent bikes and visit on two wheels. Grand Valley is one of the state’s top mountain-biking destinations; it’s also ideal for canyoneering, white-water rafting and lengthy hikes.
West Elks, which is just over an hour’s drive from Grand Junction, has a smaller wine trail featuring 10 wineries, making it an easy day trip.
Carboy Winery is betting on sparkling wine and cultivating more cold-hearty hybrids. At its recently opened tasting room in Palisade, start with the Native Fizz Rosé, a co-fermented blend of North American hybrid grapes Verona, Aromella and Vignoles.
Red Fox Cellars is another fine choice to quench your thirst in Palisade. Sip a wine cocktail, sample one of its eight on-tap craft ciders, or try its Nebbiolo 2017, a Governor’s Cup double gold medal winner in 2019.
Across the river is the Colterris Winery at the Overlook tasting room, panoramic views of the Colorado river and rows of lavender and roses forming a beautiful backdrop – and the wine measures up as well. Order a charcuterie sampler and a bottle of the Petit Verdot 2017 – another Governor’s Cup double gold winner.
Around the corner, Maison la Belle Vie Winery makes a sumptuous Vin de Peche, a Muscat fortified with peaches, from a family recipe that dates back to the late-1800s. Ask about its wine-paired dinners as well.
In West Elks, The Storm Cellar, founded by sommeliers Jayme Henderson and Steve Steese, focuses on aromatic whites and rosés. Tastings are intimate affairs and private tastings are an option too. Top tastes include the 2019 RRV, a mouthwatering blend of Roussanne, Riesling and Viognier.
Colorado wine travel guide: where to stay & eat
In Grand Junction, locals love Bin 707 Foodbar, where chef/owner Josh Niernberg (a 2020 James Beard Best Chef Mountain Region semi-finalist), serves up fresh, inspired Colorado cuisine from the best local provisions he can source.
Hotel Maverick is a new, nicely appointed upscale hotel located on the campus of Colorado Mesa University. It offers a rooftop restaurant, and easy access to wine trails.
In the small, unassuming town of Palisade, Pêche is an exquisite culinary discovery, serving simple and fresh ingredients, artfully prepared. Try the Thai fried chicken paired with Storm Cellar Riesling and finish the meal with a portion of its marvellous rhubarb cheesecake.
For an overnight stay in Palisade, Spoke & Vine is a brilliantly renovated motel that offers a hip, friendly, no-fuss vibe. The owners take pride in the good coffee, plush beds and being pet-friendly, so leave any pretensions at the door.