I don’t do a lot of wine judging. At least I haven’t done so in the past. In part, this was because the pesky day job kept me from being able to jet off and lock myself in a room for four days to taste hundreds of wines. When I do take the time to judge wine competitions, I’ve always been biased towards competitions run by up-and-coming wine regions, or for regions that I don’t know well, and for which I would like to deepen my experience and knowledge.

My annual trip to judge the Colorado Governor’s Cup Wine Competition fits into the first category. Colorado wine isn’t on most people’s radar, despite a long history of grape growing in the state. The fact that I also grew up in Colorado sweetens the deal a bit. So spending a couple of days tasting close to 100 local wines lets me support the home team, so to speak, with the hopes of encouraging rising quality.

Some of the lovely hues from competition wines.

The Colorado Governors Cup Competition evaluates wines, fruit wines, meads, and sakes (but not ciders) made in Colorado. A vast majority of the wines evaluated are made with Colorado-grown grapes, but that is not a requirement for entry into the competition, and occasionally a wine will be made from trucked-in fruit.

During this competition, I and my fellow judges agree on medals for the better wines, and then, in the end, select a group of wines that become the “Governor’s Cup Collection” – a set of wines that are sold as a unit to anyone interested in trying the best of what the state has to offer. There are some years where we can’t quite narrow the list to around 12 bottles, so sometimes, like this year, we end up with 14 wines.

I was particularly pleased this year to see that Colorado vintners have increased their exploration of alternative grape varieties, and as the results demonstrate below, with no small success. While Colorado does have a long history of growing grapes, a truly commercial wine industry is a relatively recent phenomenon, and we’re far from anyone having figured out the right grapes to grow in all the right places. Up-and-coming regions such as Colorado need to keep experimenting for a while to see what truly shines in their unique terroirs.

My fellow judges.

Once all the medal winners from the entire competition have been announced, I’ll offer my personal scores and tasting notes for the wines, but for now, here’s what I thought of the 14 wines that the judges selected for this year’s Colorado Governor’s Cup Collection.

It is important to note that the tasting notes and scores below are mine and mine alone, and in many cases, they differed from the rest of the judges at the competition. Where available, I have provided costs and links to purchase.

Tasting Notes

2018 BookCliff Vineyards, Graciano
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of brambly berries and green herbs. Boysenberry and herbs linger with tacky tannins through a long finish. Good acidity that has a citrus peel snap to it. An excellent rendition of this grape that shows great promise. Score: between 8.5. and 9.

2018 BookCliff Vineyards Reserve Syrah
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet oak and blackberries. In the mouth, sweet oak and blackberry fruit flavors are wrapped in leathery tannins that are fairly aggressive. I wish there was less oak on this wine, but many will find it appealing. Score: around 8.5.  

2019 Buckel Family Wine Cinsault
Light ruby in color, this wine smells of exotic herbs and flowers. In the mouth, silky flavors of red apple skin and peach and berries are spicy and floral and quite pretty. I wish it had more acidity, but it’s a pretty great wine, with subtlety, varietal expression, and deliciousness. Very faint tannins. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.  

2020 Buckel Family Wine Pétillant Naturel Rosé
Pale peachy pink in the glass with medium fine bubbles, this wine smells of scrambled eggs and berries. In the mouth, flavors of pink Smarties mix with a hint of grapefruit, all with a tangy sour quality. Fizzy mousse. Fun. Score: around 8. Cost: $28. click to buy.  

2019 Carboy Winery Teroldego, Grand Valley
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and earth. In the mouth, cassis and blackberry flavors are silky and smooth, and seamless, but with less acidity than I would like. But damn, it certainly does taste like Teroldego. Score around 8.5.

2019 Carlson Vineyards “Tyrannosaurus Red” Lemberger, Grand Valley
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of herbs and boysenberries. In the mouth, boysenberry and herbs mix with some earthy notes and a touch of citrus on the finish. Faint tannins. Could have more acidity, but very expressive and quite exciting as a demonstration of what this variety might be able to do in Colorado. I just wish everyone would call it Blaufränkisch instead. Score: between 8.5. and 9. Cost: $15. click to buy.  

NV Sauvage Spectrum “Sparklet Candy Red” Verona, Grand Valley
Very dark garnet in the glass with medium fine bubbles, this wine smells of forest floor and cassis. In the mouth, earthy herbal notes suggest tree bark along with blackberry fruit. Surprisingly savory. Verona is a patent-pending American hybrid grape developed in the late 90s. Score: around 8.

2020 The Storm Cellar Rosé of St. Vincent, Grand Valley
Light baby pink with a slight coppery hue, this wine smells of orange peel and hibiscus. In the mouth, rosehip and citrus peel mix with lovely bright acidity and a hint of cotton candy. Delightful, and possibly the best American hybrid rosé I’ve ever had. The St. Vincent grape has been cultivated in the Midwest since the late 70’s. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.  

2018 Turquoise Mesa Winery Merlot, Grand Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of oak, cherry, and plum. In the mouth, cedar and plum fruit is bright and juicy with excellent acidity. There’s a touch too much oak and its mocha flavor here for my taste, but this is an extremely well-made wine. Faint tannins. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.  

2019 Whitewater Hill Vineyards Chambourcin, Grand Valley
Very dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of wet dog, brambly berry. In the mouth, brambly blueberry and cassis mix with blackberry and tree bark. There’s a wet dog note on the finish. Chambourcin is a French-American hybrid grape developed in the late 60s. Score: around 7.

2019 Continental Divide Winery, Gewürztraminer, Grand Valley
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of lychee and orange peel. In the mouth, silky flavors of orange peel, white flowers, and rainwater have a nice cleanness to them. I’d like more acidity, but quite pretty and nicely balanced. Faint sweetness. 16 g/l residual sugar. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $29. click to buy.      

2020 Plum Creek Winery “Palisade Festival” White Blend, Grand Valley
Near colorless in the glass, with a hint of greenish-gold, this wine smells of honeydew melon and candied green apple. In the mouth, brightly aromatic flavors of green melon and green apple, and kiwi are bright and juicy with decent acidity. A blend of Aromella (a winter-hardy hybrid related to Traminette), Riesling, and Chardonnay. Score: between 8.5 and 9. click to buy.      

2019 Redstone Meadery Tupelo Mountain Honey Wine
Medium gold in the glass, this mead smells of roasted nuts and dried honey. In the mouth, honey roasted nuts and quince paste flavors have a dry hay quality to them. Good acidity and long finish. Quite tasty. Score: around 8.5. click to buy.      

NV Carlson Vineyards Cherry Wine, Grand Valley
Bright ruby in the glass, this wine smells of red apple skin, dried cherries, and orange peel. In the mouth, tangy bright orange peel, dried cherry, and honey flavors have only a faint sweetness to the wine’s benefit with a very balanced overall complexion. Good acidity. 55 g/l of residual sugar. Made with 100% Grand-Valley-grown Montmorency cherries. Score: between 8.5 and 9. $14. click to buy.