Fruit forward 

Monument's Catriona Cellars feels young, but also full of ambition and flavor

We're sitting on a gorgeous winery patio, where beyond sculptures, potted herb plants and flowers you take in the mountains. Aesthetically, this spot could hold its own with a Napa vineyard's tasting room, surmises my friend. In turn, I reference sunny cellar showcases ranging from Italy to Chile and New Zealand.

"Yup," we conclude, our glasses of Catriona Cellars 243 Red in hand. This place is legit and often quite fine with its flavorings. And it's in Monument.

My friend's a former chef, second-level sommelier and current wine rep, and he quickly places Catriona in context for me. It largely sources its juices and grapes to blend or mash on-site from Lodi, Calif., a hot-climate, Central Valley spot known for young fruit with high residual sugars that lend to bigger alcohol percentages.

"It's really expressive — it tells you what it is right away," he says of the resulting product.

We're tasting through Catriona's eight current offerings, in sample glasses nearly too small to fit one's nose into. (Three samples are free, each thereafter is $3; glasses are $8 to $9; bottles $17 to $28.)

The Orchard White kicks us off like a sour-apple Jolly Rancher; fun, but nothing serious and perhaps pricey at $17. The 243 White, a dry Riesling, boasts a plush style with easy pair-ability, while the Cellar Reserve White acts "lean" for a Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier blend, with enough acid to cut a triple-cream Brie.

Enter the Sassy Lassy, a clever Rosé styled after Sangria, with melon elements and big fruit character. Like much of Catriona's style as a whole, it'll please the masses: "Cougar Juice," if you will.

The bold red fruit and overt wood of the 243 Red reinforce that notion, and with a Merlot top and plum-bearing Zinfandel middle held by Syrah's structure, the cherry and raspberry notes deliver, yielding our favorite wine of the day.

The Red Diva replaces the Merlot in the 243's blend with Cabernet for a drier finish, and as Catriona's flagship label it's decent but underwhelming, with pomegranate aroma versus cherry and raspberry. Despite described blackberry and currant elements missing from the Cellar Reserve Red, it's good and more enjoyable than the more costly (by $4) Cellar Reserve Limited, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah and Malbec that with overwhelming oak influence elicits thoughts of Cognac.

Clearly, though, winemaker and Catriona co-owner Woody Woodworth, holder of three medals from the 2013 WineMaker International amateur competition, dances well with diversity and demonstrates skill to match passion. Converting what was High Country Homebrew and Gifts into this wine-and-beer supply store, winery and tasting room/café took guts beyond those mashed from wine skins. The good news is that it's also a worthy place to eat.

Chef Patricia McClelland proves equal parts elusive and expressive. In response to a sourcing query, she fails to elaborate further than, "I get my meats through our distributors." But she kindly shows us the musty barn wood and iron bars of the historic old Monument jail that's been turned into a private dining room below her kitchen, and shares how she used the Reserve Red to fortify the soup of the day, a pale purple cherry bisque ($5) that tastes like an Italian tomato bisque.

Her menu's tightly composed and falls mostly in the small-plate model. The exception is the excellent charcuterie platter ($15) bearing her delightful rosemary bread next to olives, grapes, Brie, Capicola, Soppressata, Mortadella, Manchego and Canadian cheddar. Our superior server talks up the accompanying house chutney as a customer favorite, but to us it's overly clove-flavored — I crunch on a whole one.

A Southwest shrimp special ($8) presents perfectly cooked prawns with a nice mango salsa, while garlic green beans ($4) unfortunately lead with a burnt-garlic flavor. Onion soup Provençale ($5) hangs with the best French onion soups in town.

The beet and orange salad, plus grilled Portobello mushroom and tomato salad as a special (each $7), are serviceable but lack anything surprising or strongly unifying beyond balsamic backbone. Between the Colorado lamb or buffalo sliders (each $9), the lamb shines with rich seasoning, bleu cheese, a perfect medium-rare sear and a lovely house dill focaccia, while the buffalo shows up drier, needing salt and sporting a bland aioli and non-piquant mustard sauce.

The day's crème brulée ($6), a texturally perfect chocolate orange, sees a pretty plating with edible pansies. Truffles from 1492 ($6; see p. 24) are the safe dark and milk chocolate versions, plus a salted caramel. Golden Pines label coffee, ($3), which I know to be expertly roasted at R&R Coffee, is somehow mishandled: burnt-tasting with air bubbles on top, as if it'd been languishing all day.

Which, in a better context, is what I could do on Catriona's patio quite happily. And that's the ultimate sign of early success here. It's young and at times a little too forward, like Lodi's progeny, but Catriona drinks just fine on the whole.



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