A taste of Denver International Wine Festival 2010

The Denver International Wine Festival celebrated year six with a VIP tour of Front Range wineries and Roundhouse Spirits -- a tour that began Saturday with plenty of wine, ended with plenty of gin, and stuffed the middle with gourmet nibbles and a glut of info from a trip to Colorado Winery Row.

Balistreri Vineyards was the first stop, for tastes of the signature barrel-fermented wines that contain no added sulfites (those ratty little headache-inducing sulfur dioxide compounds), just the good ol' wild yeast from grape skins. Witnessing bulk grape maceration was a heady experience for both humans and opportunistic swarms of fruit flies. Proprietors John and Birdie Balistreri and their daughter, Julie, gave a wine nerd's dream tour, complete with up-close views of the fermenting tubs of dark, frothy grape goo.

As a special treat, tour guests were offered tastes of the "bottom wine" -- the strong, astringent new wine underneath the thick blanket of grape must in the fermenting tank. It's similar to an even more unpolished Beaujolais Nouveau, having insufficient time to mellow in Balistreri's numbered barrels.

The Balistreri wine roster is dominated by rich, full-bodied Merlots, intense, spicy Cabernets and warm, woody Syrahs. Fans of lighter, sweeter wines will get a smack in the chops here, because even the hand-pressed Colorado Cherry wine is loaded with dry spice from the oak barrels.

A few standout favorites: the 2008 Colorado Cabernet Franc (very tart and vegetal with a hint of green pepper), the "Ruby Style" port (heavy butterscotch nose), and the 2007 Late Harvest Zinfandel, which assaults the palate with the unmistakable burn of black pepper and leaves you with quite a bit of smolder at the finish.

Balistreri's new endeavor is the 2009 Tempranillo, and a sample of the ripe grapes revealed a naturally shadowy, smoky flavor. Originally from northern Spain, these grapes are low in both sugar and acidity, and used in Rioja and port.

Our second stop was Bonacquisti Wine Company on so-called Winery Row, and it was a jarring contrast to go from a rural vineyard setting to a condo filled with stainless-steel equipment and vivid decor. Bonacquisi's [d] Red is a Bordeaux-style red, available in keg form, and the Bella Risa Sauvignon Blanc is cut with 25 percent orange Muscat, thus adding a touch more citrus than the norm. The vividly colored label art is by Daniel Luna, very trendy and urbane.

The final wine stop was next door at the tasting room shared by Garfield Estates Vineyard and Winery and Cottonwood Cellars/The Olathe Winery. The latter offered a new release: 2009 White Lemberger, which was an immediate hit. Sweet with a cherry/cranberry nose and peach back, it's an easy summer drinkable; Blaufränkisch or Lemburger grapes are native to Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic.

But the undeniable diva of the tour was Garfield Estates' scrumptious 2009 Vin de Glace (Ice Wine), with its heavy, syrupy mouthfeel and aromas of honeydew melon, citron and sweet apple. The flavor was delicate and brought out what Muscat grape lovers live for: the smooth, golden balance of floral and fruit. The Muscat Ottonel grapes used in this engaging treat are Austria and Croatia's dessert-wine staple.

Nothing tops off a day of wine drinking like an afternoon tour of a gin micro-distillery. And we weren't swilling the cheap stuff; this was Boulder's Roundhouse Spirits gin. Master Distiller Ted Palmer's baby is aromatic and palate-warming, with spicy star anise, a bite from lemon peel and coriander, a hint of calm from lavender and chamomile buds, and a smidge of the exotic from hibiscus flowers.

By this point in the tour, we all had a nice gourmet buzz going, so landing at Mountain High Appliance for a couple of food demos and listening to some shameless Electrolux plugging was a happy ending.

Executive Chef David Harker of the Omni Interlocken prepared his award-winning Full Sail IPA banh mi slider, a Vietnamese-style pork-and-charred-prawn slider with green papaya slaw and jalapeno-and-red-pepper sweet mayonnaise. His recipe was reminiscent of traditional, authentic Vietnamese street-cart food, he explained, and watching him push a peeled green papaya across his mandoline with no blade guard was thrilling. Since he had all of his fingertips intact, he appears to be a man who can be trusted.

The second demo was hosted by catering business partners DeWayne Lieurance (The Ghetto Gourmet) and Zee Muhaisen of Hands of Thyme. The charismatic Lieurance kept the crowd entertained with his message of "Shop local!" while the shy and silent Zee scooped a delicious seasonal fresh-vegetable ratatouille onto small plates and added a micro-salad and roasted fingerling potatoes drizzled with black truffle oil to each serving.

Local wine, gin and food are three compelling reasons to exalt Colorado, and DIWF co-founders Christopher J. and Darcy R. Davies put on a helluva good tour -- so catching this bus in 2011 will be well worth the hangover.