Huh? Texas wine? Isn’t that the home of “Chateau Bubba”?
Even though roughly 90% of all wine produced in the U.S. comes from California, today wine is made in all 50 states. It’s perhaps not surprising that Washington, Oregon and New York State (Finger Lakes, Long Island) are the other top producers of quality wine, collectively making up an additional 8%. So that leaves 2% for all other states. In 2014, Texas ranked 10th in production and 6th in the number of wineries. (My home state of Ohio is also in that ranking at 7th and 8th positions, respectively, in production and number of wineries.) Recent intel supplied anecdotally by local winemakers indicates that Texas moved up to 5th position in 2015.
Texas wine history mirrors that of other western states. Missionaries planted vines in the 1600s. German immigrants arrived in the 1800s, bringing homeland vines that didn’t grow well in the hot Texas climate. Like California, the Texas wine industry catapulted forward in the 1970s. Texas pioneers include Doc Clinton (Llano Estacado Winery), then a chemistry professor at Texas Tech University, who is widely considered to be the father of Texas winemaking. But it wasn’t until growers like Neal Newsom and Jet Wilmeth discovered that Rhone, Spanish and Italian varieties love Texas that things really began to take off.
Recent growth in wineries has been meteoric. Texas Grape Growers Association documented 180 Texas wineries in 2009. Now there are close to 300. The Central Texas Hill Country, seated by the quaint (somewhat touristy) town of Fredericksburg, has 46 wineries, all with fancy tasting rooms. Local winemakers who keep a watchful eye on growth note that there are 25 more wineries under construction right now in and around Fredericksburg.
The Hill Country is often described — at least by locals — as the Napa Valley of Texas. The wine region’s growth in tourism popularity is booming. In the mid-2000s, Orbitz.com reportedly ranked the Texas Hill Country as the second fastest growing wine destination in the U.S. Local signage still proudly displays this somewhat dated piece of visitor propaganda. Perhaps more realistically, in 2014 Wine Enthusiast named the Texas Hill Country Wineries as one of the 10 best wine travel destinations in the U.S.
There are eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Texas, with the Texas High Plains AVA in the panhandle around Lubbock supplying most of the grapes to Fredericksburg wineries. To a person, the staff serving up flights describe the climate as Mediterranean. It’s probably the closest description for this sunny, dry region in which vineyards must be irrigated to survive. The secret is the “High Plains.” Like many quality wine regions, Texas landscape includes an escarpment, the edge of which offers ideal winegrowing conditions — hot days, cool nights, (relatively) high altitude of 3500 feet.
Quality wine. That’s always the key. So what about Texas? Has it moved beyond its “Chateau Bubba” reputation? While I can’t attest to the merits of the whole lineup, on a recent drive from Austin through Johnson City and Stonewall to the historic Germantown of Fredericksburg, we stopped in the Texas Hill Country AVA for a wine and food pairing at Kuhlman Cellars, followed by a drive through LBJ National Historic Park and a tasting at Pedernales Cellars. Over the balance of the long holiday weekend we also visited Becker Vineyards and Grape Creek Vineyards.
Opened in 2014, the wine tasting room at Kuhlman Cellars offers a unique wine and food pairing opportunity that is a fantastic addition to the wine trail along Hwy 290. Reservations are necessary for a guided tasting experience of five wines paired with “nibbles” that are carefully selected to bring out flavor nuances. Open Thursday through Sunday only. 18421 E. US Hwy 290, Stonewall; (512) 920-2675.
Featured Wine 2014 Calcaria (“cal-CAR-ee-uh”): 12.7% abv, unusual white grape blend of 75% Trebbiano, 17% Roussanne and 8% Viognier. $22.00. Kuhlman’s most popular wine, named for the deep calcereous soil on the Kuhlman Estate. Aromatic, round and full bodied; aromas of stone fruits and white flowers, crisp citrus acidity on the palate. Paired with grapefruit “tartare,” onion, jalapeño and cilantro in a Tostitos cup (salt and citrus bringing out those qualities in the wine). The 2014 is sold out, but look for the 2015 vintage release the week of January 25th!
Every winery has a big back story. At Pedernales Cellars, it’s earning a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition for its 2011 Viognier Reserve, and taking the Grand Gold prize for its 2012 Viognier Reserve at the Lyon International Wine Competition (the only U.S. winery to win a top honor). Of course the 2012 vintage is long gone from the market — except for a precious bottle tucked away by friends in Austin — and it was a beauty of a classic Viognier. The Kuhlken family planted vineyards 20 years ago and are still operating as a family operation. Open 7 days a week, no appointment needed. All wines available through the tasting room are $29.99 to $49.99. 2916 Upper Albert Road, Stonewall; (830) 644-8186.
Featured wine 2014 Viognier Reserve: Slightly more delicate in body than the 2012 vintage, with clear aging potential, this wine exhibits the body, perfume and floral essence of a quality Viognier. Notes of butterscotch and vanilla owing to 90 days spent on new French oak; aromas of rose petal and peaches. $39.99. Open 7 days a week. 2916 Upper Albert Road, Stonewall; (830) 644-2037.
In order to experience the wines of Becker Vineyards, you will likely need to visit the Texas Hill Country! Although Becker is one of the largest Texas producers and its wines are widely available, the wines presented at the tasting room are only sold there, not via retail distribution. Becker also offers a club membership with wines available only to members. Vineyards were planted in 1992 on dolomite soil. The first wines were produced in 1995, and the tasting room opened in 1996. Becker was the first winery in Texas to commercially plan Viognier. Open 7 days a week. 464 Becker Farms Rd., Stonewall; (830) 644-2681.
Featured wine 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Wilmeth Family Vineyard: 13.3% abv, 100% Cab. $40.00. Grower Jet Wilmeth is one of three farmers who contract vineyard-designated grapes for a reserve Cab. With top notes of earth, leather and tobacco, and dark fruit notes emerging in a second layer, the wine is a “late bloomer” (according to Becker staff).The eponymous Grape Creek Vineyards sits on a 17-acre plot planted in 1983. Initially a grower, the founder began producing wine in 1989 — the oldest winery on the Hwy 290 wine trail — and built the first underground cellar in Texas. Current award-winning winemaker Jason Englert joined the winery in 2004. In 2006, the property was purchased and expanded by Brian Heath who has created a “Tuscany in Texas” look and feel to the experience. The picturesque winery campus is set among gnarled peach trees, blackberry bushes and herb gardens. Tastings, tours, lunch (pizza, panini pasta) at Stout’s Grape Creek Vineyards Trattoria. Open 7 days a week. 10587 E. US Hwy 290, Fredericksburg; (830) 644-2710.
Featured wine 2013 Rendezvous: 13.8% abv, Rhone blend (GSM plus Viognier). $26.95. Classic spicy notes, red fruit, rose petals; smooth, integrated tannins; well balanced. This lovely wine would be terrific chilled on a hot summer day.
Photos courtesy of: Pinterest (Texas Viticultural Area Map); stevestastingsandtravel.com (tasting table) and texasmonthly.com (wine bottle) at Kuhlman Cellars; pedernalescellars.com (logo) and expressnews.com (outdoor patio) at Pedernales Cellars; snooth.com (label) and winetrailtraveler.com (lavender) at Becker Vineyards; Grape Creek Vineyards logo courtesy of texaswinetrail.com. All other photos taken by or for Kathy Merchant.
Resources: “Crush” Hill Country Edition 1; “Texas Wineries: A Guide” (2012, no longer published)
Up next: profile of Kuhlman Cellars.