How a Grand Valley Winery’s Grapes Capture the Flavor of Climate Change


Sauvage and his winemaker partner Patric Matysiewski are newcomers to the state’s premier wine region, but they’re also pioneers in replacing some traditional European grape varieties with hardier hybrids.

Sauvage and Matysiewski don’t just grow the newborn grapes. They have learned to tweak their winemaking to better suit these different styles of grapes that have been snubbed by many winemakers and even declared illegal in the wine regions of France.

“They don’t behave like traditional wine grapes,” Sauvage said.

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A winery worker carries a bucket of harvested grapes at the Sauvage Spectrum winery in Palisade, Colorado on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.

The impact of climate on grapes and how it changes the flavor of wine

Sauvage first became interested in hybrid grapes almost a decade ago after frosts destroyed 75% of his traditional grape crop. Another deep freeze in 2020 washed away about 90% of his grapes as well as those of many growers around Palisade.

Some winemakers have doggedly replanted traditional varietals, but Sauvage, who calls himself a farmer through and through, has turned to more hybrids.

So here he and Matysiewski are, in the groan and grind of a day’s grape treading, doing their part to thwart climate change – and, in the process, throwing new elements into the terroir of the Great Valley. – the taste conferred by the environment where a wine is produced. Palisade’s terroir includes all weather conditions: sudden freezes, prolonged heat waves, lack of rain, loss of nighttime chill, and smoky air from increasingly western wildfires. This smoke can seep into the grape skins and ultimately impart a flavor to the wine that Sauvage calls “ashtray.”

20220907-WILD-VINEYARD-HARVESTHart Van Denburg/CPR News
A vineyard worker during harvest at the Sauvage Spectrum winery in Palisade, Colorado on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. The company contracts the same crew of H1-B visa migrant workers from Mexico to work its harvest each year.

These hybrid varietals, which were selected to better meet all these challenges, bring a whole new palette of flavors to the venerable Vitis vinifera – the Cabernet Sauvignons, Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays that have been staples of Colorado wine country for so many years. of decades.

Viticulture has always been riskier than normal in one of the highest wine regions in the world. (Sauvage Spectrum grapes grow at an elevation of around 4,700 feet.) Climate change has upped the bet. For winemakers, meeting the challenge of climate change means more than just pulling a crop of grapes through a season of heat, cold, smoke and pests.

Ten percent of Sauvage Spectrum’s grapes are now hybrids, but even these tougher grapes aren’t foolproof.

They can still be bombarded by wild weather variations and are always susceptible to the busy beaks of hungry birds that can strip a vineyard in no time. This is why the vines are protected under hectares of nets. And bears have been known to slip under these nets in vineyards and tear up acres of crops.

20220907-WILD-VINEYARD-HARVESTHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Netting is a common sight on hundreds of acres of vineyards in Palisade, arranged by hand as the grapes grow and ripen to keep birds from feasting on the fruit. A vineyard worker replaces netting on vines that have yet to be picked at Sauvage Spectrum Vineyards in Palisade, Colorado on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.

When it’s time to pick and make the wine

On a recent day in September, Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner rode through clumps of those netting grapes and heavy peach trees in a carbon-neutral pedicab powered half by solar batteries and half by the legs of Palisade Pedicab owner Mark Williams. Williams operates six pedicabs, ferrying visitors around Palisade-area wineries to do its part to reduce energy consumption.

As Williams pedaled beneath the rocky folds of the Book Cliffs and the foothills of the Grand Mesa, Warner learned that Palisade-region winemakers needed to focus on a more myopic view of climate. Grape varieties must be planted with particular attention to micro-climates. These areas of varying temperatures are no larger than city blocks, but one block’s crops can be decimated by climatic factors while a neighboring block can survive unscathed. Sauvage says he is very attentive to the grape varieties he uses in this checkerboard of fruit and wine grape varieties. The hybrids give him more options when working on this board.

The bet continues once the plump bunches have survived all possible weather disasters and festoon the vines.

Sauvage and Matysiewski took Warner under the net to a vineyard to show how they determine the type of wine they can expect from dark purple Sirah grapes. Matysiewski measured the sugar content of grapes by breaking up a bunch in a plastic bag and pouring some juice into a device called a refractometer. He then held an eye on the device as if wielding a telescope and reading the numbers. This sugar measurement should be weighed with another acidity measurement they did a few days earlier to help determine when it’s time to pick those grapes for optimal wine flavor. Measurements show that this year’s wines made from these grapes will have lower than normal alcohol content as warm temperatures have affected sugars – not a bad thing as this is a trend among wine drinkers.

20220907-WILD-VINEYARD-HARVESTHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Standing under netting designed to prevent birds from eating grapes, producer Kaibab Sauvage drips juice from hand-crushed grapes into a refractometer held by his business partner, winemaker Patric Matysiewski in Palisade, Colorado on Tuesday, September 6 2022. The instrument measures the sugar in the juice, which in turn tells the winemaker when the grapes are ready to be picked. These grapes were ready and a team of contracted pickers arrived the next week.

The measurement in the refractometer sparked a significant stare between Sauvage and Matysiewski. The numbers say it’s time to choose – now!

Once these grapes are in the bins and on the crusher, Sauvage and Matysiewski change the types of wines they produce to better showcase the hybrid grape varieties. They blend some with vinifera grapes and turn others into natural sparkling wines called “pet nats”.

Sauvage compares pet nats to sparkling wines that are halfway to champagne. Pet nats are capped with bottle stoppers rather than a cork stopper. And they’re cloudy with sediment — the yeast element in wine that Sauvage calls a “brioche note.”

20220907-WILD-VINEYARD-HARVESTHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Kaibab Sauvage directs a loader carrying bins of grapes onto a washer truck at the Sauvage Spectrum winery in Palisade, Colorado on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. Wine varrels can be seen in the background.

Sauvage and Matysiewski say wine drinkers should be open to change. Beyond accepting new hybrid flavors and new wine styles, they need to understand that most wines change with climatic factors.

“Farmers and grape growers need to be able to adapt to different conditions each year,” Sauvage said. “Wine drinkers also need to be adaptable and know that wines will change from year to year depending on conditions.

“Wine is an expression of place,” he added. And climate change is affecting these places.

Barrels of wine at the Sauvage Spectrum winery in Palisade, Colorado on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. Agriculture, including growing grapes and peaches, is made possible in this desert environment by irrigation water from the river Colorado government-hauled Highline Canal.

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