Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about Estes Park’s craft beverage businesses.)
In an unassuming-looking building at 292 Moraine Ave. in Estes Park, something tasty is going on. Snowy Peaks Winery is making reds, whites and rosés to sip in their tasting room, buy or take home or ship to friends.
The grapes Snowy Peaks uses to make their delicious concoctions come from Pallisade on the western side of the state and Burlington on the east side of the state.
“This last year there was a really bad freeze in Pallisade and for the first time in our 16-year history, we had to bring in a few white wine grapes from Washington State,” said Tristian Coriell, tasting room manager and assistant winemaker at Snowy Peaks. “That’s the first time ever. Hopefully, it’s going to be the last time ever. It’s good fruit, we just want to make sure we’re staying with Colorado grapes.”
Snowy Peaks produces 26-27 varieties of wine from 18-19 different varietals of grapes. Some of those varietals will make a sweet wine and a dry win. Some will be blended.
“Every year, depending on what the harvest is like and what our demand is, we bring in between 25 and 45 tons of grapes,” Coriell explained.
Snowy Peaks does not have the facility to offload big trucks in Estes Park, so the winery works in conjunction with BookCliff Winery in Boulder which also has its own vineyards.
The trucks of grapes are delivered to BookCliff. The first step is sorting of the grapes. They are put through a big chute. By hand, workers pull out the vineyard debris like stems, big leaves, over-ripe clusters of grapes, under-ripe clusters and the occasional rock.
From there, the grapes go through a machine that plucks the fruit off the stems. Then the grapes go through a series of rollers that smash them into a pulpy slurry.
The rest of the process is completed on site at Snowy Peak Winery in Estes Park.
Making white wine
If the workers are making white wine or rosés, they press the grapes immediately and only ferment the juice.
“We use a wine press called a vertical basket press,” Coriell demonstrated. “It’s a half ton press.”
The wine press is filled to the top with grapes and the lid is closed. There is an air bladder in the center which is hooked up to an air compressor to make it squeeze outward.
“It’s a very simple process but there is a lot of technique to it,” Coreille noted. “If you squeeze it too lightly, You’re just wasting juice. If you squeeze it too hard, you actually crush the skins and seeds inside the grapes. That can lead to undesirable flavors.”
The juice flows out into a catch tray and it poured into a bucket. From there, it is pumped into huge stainless steel tanks. This is where fermentation occurs.
“We choose what type of years is going to get the best flavors for that particular type of grape,” Coriell stated. “We also chill the white wines during fermentation. We try to keep it around 65 degrees.”
The white wine typically takes three to four weeks to ferment. Workers use a tool called a hydrometer to tell if the wine is ready. A hydrometer if a float that measures the specific gravity and tells the winemakers what sugar content is left.
Once the wine is finished fermenting, the yeast will die and settle to the bottom of the tank. The wine is then pumped off into a clean tank a couple of times to clarify it.
“It’s sterile filtered down to .45 microns to remove any remaining yeast cells,” Coriell said. “We pump it into taken, then bottle it in a gravity-fed bottling system, put a cork in it and label it. We stack it up in the cases and then release it almost instantly. We bottle it, let it rest and then take it up to the tasting room. White wine is usually better when you drink it young.”
Making red wine
Unlike white wine, red wine is not pressed until after fermentation. The slurry is fermented with all of the skins, seeds and pulp.
“We want the skins in there,” Coriell pointed out. “The color and a lot of the flavor in the red wines come from the skin. We also do not chill the fermentation of the reds. We want that heat that’s generated by the yeast. The heat further helps to break down the skins and you get better extraction of color and flavor that way.”
The fermentation on a red wine is much shorter than a white wine, typically taking a week to 10 days.
Once the fermentation is complete, the wine is put into the press. After pressing, instead of putting it in tanks, the red wine is placed into barrels.
“The majority of the barrels are French oak,” Coriell said. “We do use a couple of American oak barrels. American oak has a lighter grain. It imparts a stronger, oaky flavor to the wine. It’s a little bit bolder. French oak is a little bit more subtle.”
A myriad of factors affect the flavors the barrels impart to the wine, from the age of the barrel, the level of the inside charred toast of the barrel, the part of the tree the wood came from and even the forest in which the tree grew.
“Barrel aging wine is an art unto itself,” Coriell explained. “The main purpose of the barrel is to provide a perfect aging environment for the wine. It’s called a micro-oxidative environment.”
Too much oxygen present on the wine will spoil the batch, basically turning it into vinegar over time. No oxygen and the wine will not soften. A barrel is designed to allow an optimal little bit of oxygen through, letting the wine breathe a little bit and aiding in the softening and aging of the wine.
“The lighter varietals only need about a year to soften,” Coriell said. “Some of the really bold, really tannic red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Petit Syrah hang out in the barrel for about two years.”
When asked about his current favorites at the winery, Coriell chose Pinot Gris (white) and Graciano (red).
Snowy Peaks is in an old Ferrellgas building that has been added on to. Find out more about the winery or order some bottles for yourself at snowypeakswinery.com.