Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Texas Wine Flourishes With Creativity And Style

Brennan Vineyards Ella's Pine SemillonAre Texans trading 10-gallon hats for 750 ml bottles? 

By Dave Nershi, CSW – Publisher

Texans always think big. Although west coast wineries dominate domestic wine headlines, the wines of Texas are gaining critical acclaim and legions of new fans.

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The history of wine in Texas is a long one. The first vineyard planted in North America by Franciscan priests was planted around 1662 in Texas.  European settlers followed the development of mission outposts, bringing more grapevine cuttings and developing the industry through the 1800s. Today Texas has more than 500 wineries and the wine industry contributes more than $13 billion in economic value annually.

Wine Acreage By The Millions

Texans don’t do anything in a small way. Texas is the fifth largest wine-producing state in the US. Texas Hill County is the third largest AVA in the country encompassing 9 million acres. Even so, scoffers may doubt that the dry, arid climate is suited for growing quality grapes.

Spicewood Vineyards owner and president Ron Yates is from a six generation ranching family in Texas. “I grew up in Hill Country before it was cool,” said Yates. “We’d used to say that if you’re coming to Hill Country, you’re coming to shoot deer, eat barbecue, or play on the lake.”

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Ron spent a year in Spain while a student at the University of Texas. It was there in the Ribera del Duero region that he fell in love with wine. Upon his return, he noticed that the Texas Hill Country was a lot like the Spanish vineyard landscape, with limestone bedrock and hot days. He was convinced that Tempranillo would grow successfully in Texas. His instincts proved correct as the grape highlights the offerings at Spicewood and he earned the Top Texas Wine award at the prestigious Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo 2021 Rodeo Uncorked! International Wine Competition.

Larger Than France

“One of the misperceptions about Texas is that it seems like it would be this very limited climate for growing grapes,” said Julie Kuhlken, co-founder of Pedernales Cellars, a family-owned and operated winery in Stonewall, Texas, that specializes in Spanish and Rhone varieties. “Texas is actually bigger than France so you’re talking enormous geographic diversity. If you look at the High Plains, the reality is an amazing diurnal (temperature) which is very helpful. They are using irrigation so you're not relying on rainfall in order to make sure the plants have enough water.”

“As with many wine regions, the weather can be unpredictable so there’s a lot of hard work required in the vineyard to get the highest quality fruit possible and in the winery to make the best wines from that fruit,” said Denise Clarke, sommelier and director of the Texas Fine Wine group, which was established in 2014, who has been involved with the Texas wine industry for more than a decade. “Texas wine people are very passionate about the opportunities in this state to make benchmark wines, and they are eager to share their experiences and knowledge with other winemakers and growers.”

Texas Fine Wine is a collection of five of Texas’ most distinguished wineries: Bending Branch Winery, Brennan Vineyards, Duchman Family Winery, Pedernales Cellars and Spicewood Vineyards. Member wineries are dedicated to producing superlative wines from Texas grapes.

One taste of the lovely mocha and deep blueberry notes tinged with floral highlights from the Bending Branch 2017 Tallent Vineyard Tannat will convince any wine lover that something special is going on in Texas. We enjoyed it with a vegan pizza. This Texas Hill Country wine is sensational, perfectly balanced and bold, bold, bold. (The secret ingredient for the pizza is shallots.)

Expect the unexpected with Texas wine. An example is the Brennan Vineyard 2019 Ella’s Pine, a 100% Semillon with a limited 200-case production. With a beautiful golden color, the wine delights with smooth pineapple and honey flavors topped with touches of peach and dry herbs.

The wine is a tribute to the house at Brennan Vineyards. The McCrary house has a Loblolly Pine Tree on its south side. Ella carried the pine tree with her from her home in Alabama as a piece of her homeland. Just so happens that here in North Carolina we are surrounded by Loblolly Pines. They tower above the ground and sway in the breeze. We packed up Ella's Pine for our morning walk and took the accompanying photo.

Each wine displays world-class quality and winemaking. The flavors entrance, even if the grape names aren’t commonplace.

Bending Branch 2017 Tallent Vineyard TannatMany consumers just don’t know grapes like Tannat or Semillon. “One of our biggest challenges is that many of the wines we produce may be unfamiliar to some wine enthusiasts – they may not know much about Viognier, Vermentino, Tannat or Tempranillo, for example,” said Clarke. “We work hard to explain the varieties and how they are similar in taste and body to more well-known grapes.”

Focusing On The Right Grapes

Dave Reilly, in his 13th year as winemaker at Duchman Family Winery thinks finding the right grape varieties has been key in the tremendous surge in Texas wine quality. In the 1970s Texas was trying to grow the well-known and popular international varieties. “Well, we can grow those grapes, but we weren't making world-class wines,” said Reilly. “I'm not in any way saying you can't make a world-class Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon in Texas because there are some. It's just more the exception than the rule.” Real success for Texas wine began when the focus changed to varieties better suited to the state rather than just what people knew.

“People are so aware of the international varietals, many of which are grown in France, but if you go along the Mediterranean and actually track all of the warm weather varietals there is an enormous range of them,” said Kuhlken. “It just blows you away. We have many of these varieties that are not well known, right, they're not household names. What's allowed the Texas wine industry to grow is that at some point we said we need to stop growing things that people know the name of but don't grow well here and start growing things that grow well here and get everybody else to learn their names.”

Spicewood vineyard courtesy Texas Fine WineAlthough Cabernet Sauvignon tops the list of grape production (2019), Tempranillo, a Spanish grape, is not far behind. Other top reds include Mourvèdre, Sangiovese, and Primitivo. The top white is Viognier. Muscat Canelli is also a popular vineyard choice.

According to Clarke, grapes that show the best promise in Texas are from warm climate, Mediterranean regions including Southern France, Italy and Spain – so everything from Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Albariño, Picpoul Blanc and Vermentino to Tempranillo, Tannat, Mourvèdre, Graciano, Carignan, Teroldego, Souzão and Touriga Nacional.

The less-familiar grapes shouldn’t be a barrier to wine sippers. “I find most wine lovers are adventurous and eager to try new varieties and producers, and many wine enthusiasts have not had a lot of Texas wines,” said Clarke. “The Texas wines on store shelves are just a small percentage of the Texas wines made in the state. Thankfully, Texas wine country is just hours from Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, making it a great weekend destination to get out and explore wineries that make something for everyone.”

A Bright Future Ahead

Clarke sees intriguing developments for Texas wines. Look for more single-vineyard wines that express microclimates and terroir and single-varietal wines from grapes like Touriga Nacional and Cinsault that, in the past, have been used primarily as blending grapes.

You can also expect to see more fizz. First introduced in Texas in 2012, pet-nat is gaining more popularity. In 2021, look for Spicewood Vineyards pet-nat of Sangiovese, Brennan Vineyards pet-nat of Mourvèdre and Muscat of Alexandria, and Pedernales pet-nat of Tempranillo. Bending Branch will offer its fourth vintage of its popular Frizzante Rosé of Tannat. Clarke sees bubbles as a great choice in Texas to pair with its cuisine and hot summer days.

“Texas is an exciting but still young wine region,” said Clarke. “Texas is still experimenting with new grape varieties and winemaking techniques. I’m excited to see more wines come from our higher, mountainous elevations to complement the warm-climate grapes we are known for.”

Full disclosure: These wines were received as marketing samples.

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