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Fine Wine is the Pride of Texas

“I love Tannat! I’ve never tasted wine from this grape before,” I excitedly commented to Jennifer McInnis, General Manager at Bending Branch Winery in historic Comfort, Texas. But I wasn’t at the bar with a tasting flight before me. I was at home taking part in a Zoom webinar about off-the-radar winemaking in the Lone Star State that’s turning heads and winning international awards. Each webinar participant received a wine from a member of Texas Fine Wine (our host) and shared our impressions of the fabulous vintages.

Covid times has corralled travelers temporarily, but wine consumption has not waned with virtual wine tastings as popular as curbside pick-up.

During the program I learned from wine educator Denise Clarke that Texas is the country’s fifth largest wine producing state after California, Washington, New York, and Oregon and the fifth largest in number of wineries with more than 400.

Clarke is also director at Texas Fine Wine, a private group comprised of Texas’ five most esteemed wineries – Bending Branch Winery, Brennan Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars, Duchman Family Winery, and Spicewood Vineyards, who were also at the webinar. Hearing it “straight from the horse’s mouth” was almost as good as being in Texas.

Texas is larger than France and graced with landscapes formed by plains, plateaus, mountains, and hills. The diversity of soils and climates explain why Texas can cultivate over 50 grape varietals, including those less commonly known – such as Tannat.

Texas has eight AVAs (American Viticultural Area), but the webinar focused on the two largest: The High Plains in the north near Lubbock, and Hill Country in the south 30 minutes from San Antonio.

“Eighty percent of Texas wine grape production comes from the vast High Plains,” Clarke said.

At 4,000 – 5,000 feet above sea level this region has alkaline-rich red sand and clay, and the continental semi-arid climate provides warm weather so the grapes can ripen during the day and rest during cool nights. Spring freezes were once a challenge, but investments have been made in hail netting and innovative wind fan technology to protect the vines against frost.

Texas Hill Country is hilly and lush with trees. Elevation is between 400 and 2,400 feet, and soil types range from limestone, granite, and clay to gravel, alluvial soil, and sandstone. Summers are hot, winters are cold, and humidity is this region’s challenge.

This wide-open viticultural playground of creative possibilities has even inspired some California winemakers to resettle here and create anew their craft with a Texas twang, so to speak.

When a question popped up about how so many varietals can grow in the terroir and semi-arid climate of the High Plains, Julie Kuhlken, sixth-generation co-owner of Pedernales Cellars where she and her brother produce Spanish and Rhone-style wines, explained Texas’ out-of-the-box way of thinking.

“One of the misperceptions of Texas,” said Kuhlken, “…is limited climate for growing grapes.”

But Texas has enormous geographic diversity. Rather than relying on rain, the High Plains has made investments in innovative irrigation technology to ensure that the plants get enough water.

Also, because people already know the popular international varietals like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and pinot grigio, Texas winegrowers decided to stop growing things that people already know the names of -- but that don’t grow well here -- and instead, grow lesser-known Mediterranean varietals from France, Italy, Spain, and Greece that grow well in Texas and get wine-drinkers to learn their names. Such as tannat, grenache, mourvèdre, tempranillo, touriga nacional, and many more.

Another difference between the two largest AVAs?

“Tourism is in Hill Country, and the High Plains is all about winemaking,” said Dave Reilly, winemaker at Duchman Family Winery in Hill Country. With a strong focus on Italian varieties, a majority of Duchman’s grapes are sourced in the High Plains. Duchman’s flight wines are made from vermentino, trebbiano, montepulciano, and aglianico.

Rebecca Conley, head of operations at Brennan Vineyards in the 1860s frontier town of Comanche between Hill Country and the High Plains, introduced Ella’s Pine, a new white wine.

“This is the first time in 16 years of making wine to bring Semillon to bottle at 100% Semillon,” Conley said.

Typically used for blending with viognier, the grape is now a special line for Brennan Vineyards, thanks to this pet project of vineyards manager Travis Conley (Rebecca’s husband).

I was curious about sparkling wines, which a few Texas wineries make. But what’s taking off here are pet-nats, a naturally sparkling wine. Short for “petillant naturel,” it’s a rustic version of champagne and other sparkling wines because it’s bottled during the first fermentation (whereas champagne goes through two). Petillant naturel is an ancient minimal intervention method practiced in France and rediscovered in the 1990s.

Born in Austin, Ron Yates, owner of Spicewood Vineyards, grew up in the Hill Country “before it was cool.” One of the oldest estate vineyards in this AVA, Spicewood specializes in growing the Spanish tempranillo grape – a result of Yates living in Spain with a winemaking family during his college years and unexpectedly developing an expertise in growing tempranillo. Leaving behind careers in law and music, he followed his winemaking instincts. Now, tempranillo thrives all over the state. In his eyes, “Tempranillo is the grape of Texas.”

And while Texas winemaking dates back to the Spanish missionaries, Texas sells its wine almost exclusively within the state.

After all, it is the size of a country.




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