There’s nothing new about Texan wine. It was the first American state to cultivate grapes for wine, dating back to the 1600’s thanks to Spanish missionaries who planted grapes for altar wines, when they settled in the region. It was in the 1800s thanks to European settlers that the wineries really became established. As with other American wine regions, prohibition almost finished off the industry and it wasn’t until the 1970’s that grape growing and wine making started to make a come back. At the time, the state was known for the sweet style of their wines. They are now shaking off this image. although the sweeter traditional wines still exist this is not the trend. In the 1970’s, there were only a handful of wineries; by the 80’s they were up to 40 odd and now there is a run away success with about 300 of which 60 are large enough to produce a large and commercially viable production. The industry contributes a massive 1.83 billion dollars to the state GDP.
The wines from the 70‘s were of low quality – that’s not my opinion but that of Sam Clark, Texan Wine specialist at Spec’s the leading Texan fine wine retailer who kindly introduced to a range of wines from the state.
The land here was cheap in the 70’s compared to California. The central location, with resulting lower freight costs and the plentiful supply of water were both appealing characteristics to experienced winemakers from other regions. Little by little, thanks to help from both Californian and French specialists, the wineries have established their style, gaining a better understanding of their terroir and the appropriate grapes. When the wine revolution started here the grapes planted were the classic European varietals of Cabernet and Chardonnay. Now there is a move towards Tempranillo and Viogner, which enjoy the local microclimates.
It is not just about hot climate wines either. Yes, 2011 was a very hot vintage but the land where the best grapes are grown is the Hill country, a higher elevation means a cooler micro climate and better drying winds as it can be very humid in parts of Texas (There was almost constant torrential rain for the 3 days I was in Houston).
The 2012 was affected by hail, a regular problem apparently, so they too know all about vintage variation.
There are 5 main wine regions in Texas within which there are 8 AVA’s.
Texas Hill Country is home to most of the wineries. It is the largest AVA in Texas and the second largest in the USA and is also the centre of a booming wine tourism industry. The vineyards of Texas enjoy 1.5 million tourists a year. The region is West of Austin and North of San Antonio spreading North of Fredericksburg to San Saba and West to Menard. Within the region there are the two oldest AVAs; Bell Mountain the first to be established in the state and Fredericksburg. The region is dominated by high limestone hills dissected by steep creeks carved by big beautiful rivers. The high elevation gives cooler growing conditions. The vines are spread amongst 70 wineries, many of which welcome visitors to wine bars and restaurants and there are 300 B & Bs in the region that testify to it’s growing popularity as a tourist destination.
The Texas High Plains or Panhandle in the region of Lubbock is the second largest with (and the third largest in the US). The area used to be dominated by cotton growing. The jet stream that sweeps across the area from Washington and Oregon gives a cooler microclimate that keeps the region relatively disease free. It is the most successful region with grapes enjoying long hot dry summer days but with cool nights due to the high elevation 3,400ft above sea level on flat plateau. This gives a signature freshness and acidity, which takes many (including me) by surprise given the reputation Texas has for hot sunny weather.
North Texas has over 75 wineries and about 370 acres of vines with a range of soils This includes Texoma along the Texas Oklahoma border.
South East Texas along the Gulf coast includes the Texas Gulf coast, East Texas, and Bryan Texas.
This leaves Western Texas with it’s dry climate and fertile soils and mild winters over 1 200 acres. There are only 7 wineries here but it includes the oldest, Val Verdre, that has been in operation since the 1880’s. Here are the AVAs Escondido Valley in Pecos County and the Texas Davis Mountains and the Mesilla Valley at the far Western tip of the Texan border North and West of El Paso.
Sam introduced me to a range of 7 wines; 2 dry whites 1 rosé and 3 reds.
All the wines impressed me with their elegance, freshness and balance, I admit I was expecting blockbusters edged with sweetness and I was pleasantly surprised, much to the delight of Sam!
The first wines I tasted were whites – not what I was expecting, I was particularly impressed by the aromatic, exotic fruit and floral freshness of an elegant Viognier 2013 showing none of the weight that warmer climate Viogniers sometimes have. Stainless steel fermented from McPherson, a winery that produces 18-20 different wines on the high plains in and around the town of Lubbock, many of which are sold in their restaurant and bar. Bottled with a screw cap and at a $12 retail price this is an accessible wine in every sense of the term and hits way above its price point in terms of quality. Some of the grapes in this blend come from California.
If you want a complete Texas wine experience look for Texas on the bottle. This sounds obvious but ensures that at least 75% of the grapes in the bottle will have been sourced in Texas as well as the wine being made there. It’s all about the price. If you are paying $20 or more you can be pretty sure this is what you are getting.
The Duchman family make a point of using 100% Texan grapes, I tried their Vermentino, a grape more often associated with southern Italy. Used to hot climates, it seemed to thrive in the hot conditions in 2011 helped by it’s position on the cooler high plains. Very concentrated and aromatic, it retained its citrus character.
Another surprise, a rosé, and not a sweet one. It’s pink bubble gum colour was misleading. ‘Les Copains’ as it’s name implies, is typical Southern France blend of Cinsault, Mourvedre and Viognier again from the cellars of McPherson. With less than one 1g of residual sugar in the 2013 vintage, it is once again a surprisingly fresh and fruity wine retailing at $11.
And for the reds: The Reserve Merlot from Becker vineyards in 2012 was more in the style of a new world merlot, ripe with a smoky mocha nose and medium intensity, already showing some signs of evolution. The acidity belies it’s almost 15° alcohol – the perfect foil for those Texan short ribs.
The Pedernales 2011 was perhaps more what I was expecting. This wine packs a punch the GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre – love the way they abbreviate everything over here) had a classic southern Rhone nose, beautiful sweet fruit on the attack with well balanced acidity and an elegant fresh fruit finish.
And I couldn’t leave without trying a Cabernet. The Llano Cellar Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon comes in at less than 13° alcohol. It is complimented by a little Sangiovese, all the grapes are Texan, sourced mainly from the High Plains. Despite the low alcohol, this was probably the most reminiscent of a Californian Cabernet aged again in a mix of American and French oak, a ripe fruit nose and long sweet finish.
The show stealer of the reds for me was the Fall Creek Salt Lick Vineyard Tempranillo, again from Hill country Sam was saving the best until last; the terroir here is a mix of clay and loam over limestone giving a fresh subsoil. The ripe fruit is complimented by 15 months in a mix of French and American oak and an impressive red fruit attack with a mocha finish reminiscent of a classic Amarone. The Salt lick vineyards belong to the owners of the famous Salt Lick BBQ restaurant chain so I’ll leave you to imagine the perfect pairing for these wines.
Given this quality and diversity I’m not surprised that Texas is the 5th largest wine producing US state and continues to grow. There’s a healthy local market; Texas is the 4th largest consumer of wine in the US so unsurprisingly most of the wines remain in the state. The Texans are known for being proud of their state and it’s produce and they put their money where their mouth is.
The successes of the wines of Oregon and Washington throughout the American market, following in the footsteps of California, lead Texans to believe that their wines will be the next big thing. Their wine’s growing popularity is reflected by the recent successes in domestic wine competitions.
Spec’s currently sells 37 000 cases of Texan wines a year representing a turnover of about $4 M. October is Texas wine month at Specs, so if you’re in the Lone Star State next month it’s the perfect time to try them for yourself.
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