Had any good West Elks vino lately? West Elks is an AVA (officially designated American Viticultural Area) in Delta County, Colo., high in the Rocky Mountains, about 35 miles southeast of Grand Junction. Vineyards in the region grow at an average altitude of about 6,000 feet, making them the highest in the Northern Hemisphere.
Grapes have been grown in the state since the 19th century, but the small Colorado wine industry didn't survive Prohibition. Modern winemaking there dates from the 1960s, and today Colorado boasts about 100 wineries. Some Franco-American hybrid varieties, like seyval blanc, Marechal Foch, and chambourcin, are grown, but most of the plantings are of familiar European cultivars — chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon (and franc), sauvignon blanc, syrah, and so on.
Colorado wines are difficult if not impossible to find outside their home territory, but I did come into possession recently of a bottle of the rather dauntingly named Terror Creek West Elks Garvin Mesa Dry Gewürztraminer 2009. At 6,417 feet of elevation, Terror Creek claims to be the highest-altitude commercial winery and vineyard in the world. Winemaker Joan Mathewson, who owns Terror Creek with her husband, John, learned the vintner's art in Switzerland, itself home to many high-altitude vineyards. She specializes in Alsatian-style riesling, gewürztraminer, and pinot noir (the winery also produced a chardonnay and a pinot noir–gamay noir blend).
The gewürztraminer I tasted was good stuff — crisp, clean, brightly acidic, surprisingly high in alcohol for a high-altitude wine (14.5 percent), and as dry as promised. That said, it was shy with the traditional gewürztraminer aromatics, and not as rich as good examples of its Alsatian counterparts, but it was attractive enough to make me want to sample more Colorado wines, from Terror Creek and elsewhere.