The Challenges of Grape-Growing in the Grand Valley and the Resiliency of Local Wineries
The last ‘normal’ grape harvest in the Grand Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) was in fall 2019, as the wet spring and hot summer contributed to a very good harvest. Depending on who you ask to compare the 2020 and 2021 harvests to 2019, local winemakers’ and winery owners’ responses range from “not great” to “apocalyptic”. Following harvest 2019, Grand Valley grapes have suffered two years in a row of damage from October freezes and the threat of damage due to wildfire smoke.
On Halloween 2019, a freeze resulted in the lowest-ever temperature recorded in October: six degrees Fahrenheit in Grand Junction. Thankfully much of the grape harvest was complete. However, the grapevines did not fare well. This freeze damaged vineyards of Vitis vinifera grapes across the Grand Valley AVA. Vitis vinifera are the well-known grapes native to Central Europe and the Mediterranean (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Chardonnay, etc.) that thrive in the Grand Valley due to similar microclimates. After the grape clusters are harvested, a grapevine naturally goes through a physiological process called ‘hardening off’ where the vine prepares to go dormant for the winter and stops taking up water from the soil. Grape varietals that mature later in the season, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, are subject to severe damage if it freezes before they are fully hardened off as water present in the grapevine can turn to ice and cause the vine to split open. Several wineries lost the majority of their grapevines due to this freeze. Severely damaged grapevines can take several years to recover.
In summer and fall 2020, record-breaking wildfires blanketed much of the Western U.S. with smoke, sometimes for weeks at a time. Winemakers in the Grand Valley and across the West were very nervous about smoke taint which would effectively negate the entire red grape harvest. Not many people are interested in drinking wine that tastes like an ashtray, which is the unfortunate outcome of smoke tainted grapes. Many of the area wineries tested their grapes for smoke taint, and surprisingly none of the grapes were affected. The grapes in the Grand Valley AVA have thicker skins due to the higher UV radiation at this elevation, and it is surmised that that the reason the grapes were unaffected is because the smoke was unable to penetrate the skins. No ashtray wine here, thank you very much!
Another hard freeze in October 2020 resulted in a temperature drop of 74 degrees in 24 hours. This freeze again caused widespread damage to Vitis vinifera varietals in the Grand Valley. Several wineries lost any hope of a grape harvest in 2021 due to severely damaged vines from the October 2020 freeze, compounded by the prior year’s freeze.
So what are the area’s wineries doing this harvest season? Plenty. The past two years of freezes have led to an increased interest in growing cold-hardy and American hybrid grape varietals that have a better chance of withstanding a freeze. These lesser-known grapes, such as Chambourcin, La Crescent, Vidal Blanc, and others, are being transformed into wines every bit as delicious as their vinifera cousins by Sauvage Spectrum, Carlson Vineyards, and other area wineries.
Many wineries have also decided to import grapes from other regions to make wine. According to Garrett Portra, Owner and Winemaker of Carlson Vineyards, “This will be the first time since Cailin and I bought the winery that we have had to source fruit from anywhere other than CO. While this did create new challenges, it has also led to multiple new wines that are now on our horizon.”
Not many people need an excuse to drink more wine. That said, it is important that we continue to support our local wineries through another year of a taxing harvest season. I have had the privilege to get to know many of our area winery owners and winemakers. They are among the most hard-working, resilient people I have ever met. Plus they make some damn good wine. So find yourself a bottle of Grand Valley wine and take a moment to think about all of the effort that went into the fermented grape juice in that bottle. Be grateful, and thoroughly enjoy every sip.