Scooting up to the counter at Forgotten Roots Winery, the bearded man behind the bar slides a glass of white wine in front of you. You raise the glass to your lips and inhale — wait, that’s not Chardonnay, it smells too earthy. That’s… cantaloupe wine?
Forgotten Roots: An American Heritage Winery in Windsor, Colorado, isn’t the only winery dabbling in unconventional flavors, but it is the only one in the region that handpicks the majority of its fruit locally, and ferments without a single grape.
Forgotten Roots is even working on what they like to call its own “bushyard,” a small garden out back with blackberries, raspberries and Japanese plums.
According to owner and winemaker Ryan Carroll, who operates the shop with his wife, Sarah, most wineries with fruit-flavored wines are just that — a standard grape-based wine, with the addition of a fruit extract.
The “fanciful” name that dominates the label can be anything, but it’s at the base of the label in fine print where you’ll find out whether the wine is “merlot with artificial blackberry flavors” or an unadulterated “blackberry wine.”Another distinction is the flavor. When a wine is made with fermented fruit, the true essences of the fruit come forward. When a flavor is merely added, the wines can often taste very sweet. Carroll describes them as having a “Jolly Rancher” taste.
Why explore these unique flavors rather than sticking with the classic grape that’s been cherished for centuries? For one, Colorado isn’t the ideal landscape for vineyards. Even though it has the highest elevation vineyards in the world, surpassing Argentina, according to wine-searcher, a wine search engine and source for news.
“Typically, grapes need really well-draining soil and they can’t withstand really hard phases; if you get a temperature below 20 degrees the vine will freeze to the ground and you won’t get grapes that year,” says Paul VanderTop. As the sommelier for Vintages Wines in Fort Collins, VanderTop helps customers craft their own custom wines and occasionally deals with fruit blends.
Unlike grape wine, fruit wines don’t need to be aged before they’re enjoyed. As soon as they're fermented Carroll can start serving his product, as opposed to the six-month to one-year minimum aging time of a traditional wine. Of course, just because it can be served right away, doesn’t mean it always should be. Carroll says he will sometimes age cherry wines with oak for a few months to add another layer of flavor and depth.
Berry and stone fruit wines are nothing new. Carroll says that around the Prohibition era, these drinks really caught on — it was far easier to collect wild apricots or gooseberries to make your own underground liquor than to inconspicuously plant a vineyard without anyone asking questions. Thus the “American Heritage” portion of his company’s name.
The history of fruit wine is important to Carroll, as many of his base recipes came from family archives. He pays homage to the “roots” of country wine via his recipes, location and décor. He says his products are “very similar to recipes they’d do in the 1800s,” and the house that he chose to set up shop in was built in 1896. The original deed is framed and hangs on the wall of the tasting room, with the provision that if alcohol is sold on the premises, the house is to be turned over to the original owner — who died nearly 100 years ago.
He also displays an American flag with 42 stars that he found in the house, which would be dated to the late 1800s according to UShistory.org.
You may be wondering what the limits are for making wines. “Anything that’s got sugar in it you can make wine out of,” says VanderTop, who also notes that “the process itself is very easy, but to make it really good takes a lot of skill.” He mentioned that he’d heard of vendors experimenting with dandelion wines, another unexpected route.
At Forgotten Roots, Carroll plays around with floral fermentations as well, with a lilac wine in the works. With all of these variations, where is the line drawn between different ciders, liquors and meades?
VanderTop posited that hard cider is basically an apple wine, but Carroll clarified that the distinction comes with alcohol content. At 7 percent alcohol, what could have been considered an apple cider at a lower percentage is called an apple wine.
It may seem like this area of the beverage industry is a free-for-all with such a wide variety of ingredients, but Carroll says that the formula and label for nonstandard alcohols are subject to government approval before hitting shelves.
While Forgotten Roots only opened this past March, Carroll is already expanding. He ferments roughly 95 five-gallon seasonal batches at a time, and takes custom commissions too.
A local liquor store wanted its own line, and Carroll was happy to oblige. He’s played with beet wine, rhubarb and has a carrot and a cranberry underway for the holidays. He’s also tested spontaneous fermentation, which relies on airborne yeast strains like a sourdough would.
Visiting the winery, I tasted that cantaloupe wine, along with the pineapple and the blueberry. The cantaloupe had a sort of warm orange tinge to the tone, with a nose that smelled more like squash than melon, which Carroll credits to the fruit and vegetable being closely related. The pineapple tasted as I expected: a sweeter wine with a tropical flavor; and the blueberry tasted more like blackberries at first, with a deep red-violet hue and a finish distinctly reminiscent of blueberry skins. The blueberry was my favorite and one of his most popular vintages.
I’m most keen to try Forgotten Roots’ rhubarb wine, so I’ll be exploring his liquor store line or making the 20-minute drive to Windsor from Fort Collins sometime soon to enjoy one of the four-wine flights in the cozy tasting room off of Main Street.
Photos by Emily Pantoja