Wine Image Gallery
Wine Image Gallery

A happy taster samples some wine from Colorado.

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Colorado has more to offer than mountains, canyons and rivers. And its biggest cultural claims to fame are not limited to Mike the Headless Chicken and "South Park." It surprises many to learn that Colorado actually has a burgeoning wine industry. Compared to California, where vineyards are known to thrive, Colorado, with its harsher climate, seems an unlikely source for wine.

Although its oldest existing winery got its start in 1978, Colorado does have a history of producing wine that stretches back to the 19th century. However, after Prohibition laws ended the wine industry there, it didn't pick up much steam again until the 1990s. According to the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board (CWIDB), the industry increased more than tenfold between 1991 and 2011 [source: CWIDB].

So how can Colorado's climate be hospitable to wine grapes? It partly has to do with how, in the western region (especially in the Mesa and Delta counties, where 90 percent of the state's wine comes from), the vineyards are high in elevation, between 4,000 and 7,000 feet (1,219.2 and 2,133.6 meters) [source: CWIDB]. This exposes them to intense sunlight during the day, but still provides cool evenings. Notably, the soil in this region is also more alkaline and less acidic than that in California or New York, making it closer in character to Europe's grape-growing soils. Of course, Colorado does have a short growing season, making it less ideal for producing grapes that need longer seasons, like zinfandel [source: Smith].

Colorado is home to two American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which is a federally designated title to help vintners and consumers easily identify the source of a wine. Getting an AVA designation also helps increase the credibility of a wine-growing region. In 1990, Colorado's Grand Valley region achieved AVA status, followed by the West Elks region in 2001.

And what better way to get acquainted with Colorado's Wine Country than to visit some of its premier wine festivals or tour the country aboard a special wine train?