Even though I live in Denver over half the time, I am a Texan through and through. As such, I want, I mean really want, to love Texas wines. We spent the last two weeks re-exploring the Texas Hill Country wine region to reacquaint ourselves with what is going on with Texas wines. While I may not be in love, I definitely now have a crush on Texas wines. All puns intended…
So here is a little background for those of you who at this point have wrinkled your noses and said “Texas wine?” In 2001, there were only 46 wineries in the whole state, now there are about 200. 95% of Texas wine is consumed in Texas. The Texas wine industry employs over 9,000 people and has an economic impact of over $1.4 Billion. In 2009, Texas produced 2.4 million gallons of wine (5th in the U.S.). 2010 has been a bountiful harvest (more crop – 3,700 fruit bearing acres and good weather) so look for wine production to jump. Orbitz Travel called the Texas Hill Country the second fastest growing wine destination. Only Napa Valley grows faster. Southern Living Magazine published an article “Texas Hill Country, The next Napa?” Texas Tech University now offers a viticulture and enology degree. With over 950,000 wine tourists last year alone, wine is becoming a big deal in the Lone Star State.
The Hill Country, which I am proud to say was where I was raised, is a beautiful area in central Texas that starts in the south near northwest San Antonio, runs along the west side of Austin and north on to Brady. Many of the wineries are concentrated near historic Fredericksburg, Johnson City, and Stonewall. However, there are just as many wineries in other parts of the Hill Country, especially around Austin and the Highland Lakes. There are at least 63 wineries in Hill Country alone.
So why Texas and why now? Frankly, Texas is a tough place to grow grapes. It has a good climate and great soil for some varietals but it is prone to big hail, drought cycles, late freezes and in central Texas, the dreaded Pierce Disease brought on by a nasty little winged critter called the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter. About 80% of the Texas grape harvest comes from the Lubbock area in the Texas panhandle and west Texas where land is less expensive, the nights are cooler and there are no Glassy Winged Sharp Shooters. As one winemaker said, “We use a lot of different growers in different parts of the state to spread our risk of not getting grapes.”
At the time of this writing, mid-august 2010, it is harvest time and we wanted to be in the middle of it all. Get some County Line Bar-B-Que sauce and a little grape juice all over us. We were honored to start our trip as the lunch guests of Ed and Susan Auler, who, by many, are considered the First Family of Texas wine. They started Fall Creek Vineyards in 1975 with the help and guidance of famed Napa wine consultant Andre Tchelistcheff. We had a wonderful time enjoying the Auler’s gracious hospitality and award winning wines. More to come on our time at Fall Creek in its own article. Let’s just say we were impressed with the wines and even more so with the Aulers.
The rest of the trip was spent exploring wineries south of Austin and on into the Fredericksburg area. That only left us twelve wineries and we hit every one. I’m going to save some of the specifics for future articles when I review specific wines. Here are my general impressions.
- You will have a good time. Expect Texas hospitality and there is a good chance you will meet the winemaker and or owners. Sit down have a glass of wine with them and chat. It will make your trip even more memorable.
- Many of the wineries are very small production; 1,500 to 10,000 cases. The vast majority of their wines are sold at the tasting room. A very few can be found in area wine shops or restaurants. Some Texas wines can get pretty expensive $25 -$45 for the quality. Nevertheless, after the third tasting room…who cares?
- Ask where the grapes are from. A few Hill Country wineries have local vineyards but many do not. Some wineries use only Texas grapes. One winemaker said, “We don’t use any foreign grapes.” By foreign, he meant outside of Texas. Most come from the Lubbock area or west Texas. However, some wineries import grapes all the way from California and quite a few from New Mexico. New Mexico, I’m OK with that, but California? Why drink California wine from Texas wineries? One winery brings in wine from Australia and bottles it under their name.
- Winemakers tell me that the majority of their customers are looking for Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay. Texas just doesn’t have the right weather to make these varietals as well as California. I’ve yet to have a Texas Cabernet at any price that will compare to a $20 Napa Cab. That said, there are some damn good wines coming from Texas and Texas wine drinkers are beginning to embrace them.
- More and more winemakers and vineyard operators are, in my opinion, getting it right. They are making wines from grapes more commonly grown in southern France, Spain and Italy. I’ve said this over and over, twenty years from now Tempranillo will be to Texas what Pinot Noir is to Oregon. While I have not drank all the Texas Temps, some of the better ones from this excursion are Woodrose, Pedernales and Solaro. My favorite is Fall Creek made with grapes from Jay Knepp at Salt Lick Vineyards. There are also some very good Sangiovese, Syrah, Malbec and Mourvèdre grapes being grown. Look for unique blends using these and other grapes like Enchanté from William Chris Winery. Also their yet to be released 2009 Syrah is a winner. As for whites, the hot Texas evenings a perfect match for a nicely chilled Viognier. Many Hill Country wineries offer Pinot Grigio, but I prefer the Viognier. Grape Creek Viognier was an excellent example.
- Scout out special events at the Hill Country wineries. For the last two weeks, special offers like food pairings were being offered as part of the Harvest Wine Trail. Other events take place throughout the fall and especially at Christmas time.
Texas and wine may be a better match than you originally thought. Try Texas wineries, especially if you are in Austin or San Antonio with a little time to travel. Fredericksburg is just about an hour and a half away from either city. The drive is beautiful and you’ll meet some rightfully enthusiastic wine folks. Just remember, the terrior in Texas produces Texas flavors. It won’t be the same as California or Oregon…and for us Texans, that’s a good thing.