Purgatory Cellars Makes Wine Using Ancient Croatian Traditions

Marko and Ivanka Copic
Marko and Ivanka Copic Krista Kafer
In an inauspicious strip mall in Parker, Croatian winemaker Marko Copic is reviving the ancient practice of making wine in clay amphorae — and the results are exquisite. Purgatory Cellars (18921 Plaza Drive) makes thirty traditional and amphora-aged wines for consumption in its cozy Old World tasting room and for sale at an expanding number of wine and liquor stores along the Front Range. The winery, which opened in April 2015, is poised to take over the adjoining space in the next two weeks to make room for increased production. The new addition will house the largest wooden wine barrel in Colorado, according to Copic.

Don’t be fooled by the bland strip-mall facade. The interior space, with its exposed brick and stone walls, wooden furniture, large oak barrels and antique wine press from Croatia, will charm you, as will Copic and his wife, Ivanka. The couple and their two children came to Colorado and toured the state looking to buy a winery, but instead opted to build their own in Parker with business partner Gary Tassler, naming it after Purgatory, the abandoned mining town in western Colorado.

click to enlarge An amphora filled with fermenting wine. - KRISTA KAFER
An amphora filled with fermenting wine.
Krista Kafer
While nearly all of the grapes bought by Purgatory Cellars come from vineyards in Colorado’s Mesa County, the pinot noir and malvasia grapes (favored in Croatia) are brought up from New Mexico. Copic notes that Purgatory Cellars is the first Colorado winery to use amphorae — large clay vessels with rounded bottoms —  to make wine, and the first in the country to make an amphora-fermented sparkling wine.

Purgatory Cellars’ amphorae, called qvevri in Croatian, are imported from Georgia, where wine-making started some 6,000 years ago. Producing white wine using amphorae differs from modern techniques because the grape juice is fermented with the skins and stems, similar to the way that red wine is made. “White wines from the clay pot have the complexity of red wine,” says the vintner. The wine also comes out orange in color and contains soft tannins from the grape skins. Purgatory Cellars’ amber-hued amphora chardonnay has a rich bouquet with notes of walnut and citrus and a smooth finish.

click to enlarge Just a few of the wines produced at Purgatory Cellars. - KRISTA KAFER
Just a few of the wines produced at Purgatory Cellars.
Krista Kafer
Red wines can be aged in a clay pot, but only for a couple of months, or the wine will absorb too much tannin and become harsh. Purgatory Cellars' 2015 American Zinfandel Amphora Dessert Wine spends two months in the amphora before moving to traditional oak. It has just the right amount of sweetness, along with heavenly hints of chocolate, cherries and ripe apples.

Marko also makes a Burgundy-style chardonnay using the "sur lie" (French for "on lees") aging process. The finished wine ages with the yeast sediment (or lees), which brings out ripe tropical fruit flavors and a silky finish.

At this year’s Governor’s Cup Competition, Purgatory Cellars won silver awards for its 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2015 Petite Sirah and bronze awards for its 2015 Cabernet Franc and 2015 Malbec. The winery won several awards in 2016, as well.

click to enlarge Traditional Croatian winemaking equipment is on display at the winery. - KRISTA KAFER
Traditional Croatian winemaking equipment is on display at the winery.
Krista Kafer
Purgatory Cellars is open from noon to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Sunday, and noon to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. In the same shopping center, you'll also come across Great Finds, a wonderful little gift shop open on weekdays, and Elk Mountain Brewing, which generally has a revolving list of food trucks in case you need a snack to go with your Croatian wine.

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Krista Kafer is a Denver native who relishes good food and wine. Her motto: Cultivate taste, but never get so refined you can’t drink cheap red wine.
Contact: Krista Kafer