The Wines of Texas Are Upon Us
In my sports writing days, I traveled to Texas a lot, covering college and professional football, which is the state religion of Texas. Basically, Texas was legally dry in those days, but people who could get into the Dallas Press Club could get a drink. So could members of countless other clubs, usually with a temporary membership fee of a dollar. Whiskey was extra, but many people carried brown bags with open bottles, paying several bucks for a glass of ice and a mixer.
Wine? What’s wine? Oh, that’s the stuff you drink in church. . . .
Try a Falstaff, or a Pearl, or a Dixie.
Times certainly change. A couple of weeks ago, I went to Dallas for a weekend of wine – Texas wine – and a lot of it was excellent. I’m part of a group of wine writers who think that California is not the be-all and end-all, though we believe a lot of excellent wine is made out there, and a couple of dozen of us were on hand, representing newspapers, magazines, television stations and blog sites from Virginia, Maryland, California, Georgia, Colorado and the District of Columbia, in addition to Texas and Missouri.
The Texas Department of Agriculture does fine work promoting the wine made in the state, helping grape-growers and wine-makers with expertise and other types of support, including a marketing department that is actively into the 21st century.
So I have a wine glass and a tote bag and a corkscrew that say Drink Texan Wine. Texas is fifth in the nation in wine production and its 190 wineries are a bit more than twice the Missouri numbers. The Spanish brought wine to Texas in the 17th century, and German settlers to the Hill Country revived the dormant industry in the mid-19th century, about 30 years after German immigrants brought grapes and wine to the Augusta and Hermann areas.
Both states took a beating from Prohibition, but Texas, hamstrung by a tangle of archaic liquor laws that make the cat’s cradle of Missouri laws look simple, took longer to re-establish its wine industry. It began to lurch forward in the 1970s, sped up nicely 20 years later.
Interestingly, both states owe a great debt to Thomas V. Munson, a leader in viticulture education and experimentation. A genius horticulturist, Munson taught a large group of Missouri winemakers, then moved to Texas and settled in Denison, where, almost single-handedly, he saved wine for humanity. He had found grape root stock in Missouri when he was here, took samples with him to Texas. He then exported the same stock to France, whose vines faced extermination by the phylloxera louse. With the classic vinifera grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and others) grafted onto Munson’s root stock, louse-resistant vines were produced, though eventually, about a century later, the phylloxera became able to feast on the Missouri stock, and another resistant stock was developed.
Munson, honored by the French government, which erected a statue to him in Montpellier, is considered the father of the Texas industry.
Texas is able to grow the classic viniferas in several parts of the state, and the development of drip irrigation made it possible to use acreage in the High Plains of west Texas and the Hill Country, in the central part of the state. They’re two of the eight federal Viticultural districts established in the state. That’s a few more than Missouri, but our state has Viticultural District No. 1, in Augusta. Napa is No. 2, but Lucian Dressel’s feat in acquiring that honor is all but ignored by Missouri for some reason.
Given the size of Texas, its various parts have the climate and soil – what the French call terroir – to grow all the classic vinifera grapes, the Bordeaux varieties mentioned above (though Chardonnay does not grow well in Texas), along with Malbec, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Syrah, Tempranillo and Zinfandel among the reds, plus the Pierce disease-resistant hybrid, LeNoir. The whites include a new hybrid, Blanc du Bois, developed at the University of Florida in the last 15 years, and a good selection for hot, swampy land around Galveston or southeast Texas, as well as Florida. Other white varietals planted across the state are Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, various Muscats, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Viognier.
We tasted about two dozen wines, from all over the state and from dozens of grapes. Some were single-vineyard, estate-bottled wines, others were blends, often with proprietary names. Our task was to pick four winners, sweet white or rose, dry white or rose, sweet red and dry red, with winemakers selecting the category. Retail prices ranged from $12 to $40.
Those voted "best" were:
Dry Red: 2005 Tempranillo-Cabernet, Inwood Estates Vineyards, Dallas, $39.50: Dan and Rose Mary Gatlin use grapes from the High Plains, on the New Mexico border, and vinify in Dallas, but have made this blend of Tempranillo (65 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon a glorious wine, almost black, with big fruit flavors, led by black currant, and a long, long finish with notes of chocolate. Perfect with beef on the grill.
Sweet Red: 2006 IV (Port-style Red), Sandstone Cellars, Mason, $40: Owners Scott Haupert and Manny Silerio, and winemaker Don Pullum, use only grapes from Mason County, southwest of Fort Worth, and simply name their wines in order. This delicious, rich, very Port-style wine is the fourth they have made (a fine dry red is simply called VI). With a year in barrel and a year in stainless, the Port has a wonderful richness, with chocolate and mint in the aroma, more mint and berries on the palate, coffee in the finish. A beautiful dessert wine.
Dry White: 2008 Pinot Blanc, Flat Creek Estate, Marble Falls, $34.95: Northwest of Austin, Rick and Madelyn Naber use Pinot Blanc grapes grown in the Hill Country appellation for this full-bodied delightfully crisp and well-balanced wine that shows a lovely touch of guava on the palate. A marvelous aperitif or excellent with broiled fish.
Sweet White: 2006 Madeira Blanc du Bois, Haak Vineyards and Winery, Santa Fe, $39.95: Owner-winemaker Ray Haak, who built the first winery in the Galveston area uses grapes from various parts of the state, and the Madeira was an overwhelming choice in its category, probably as close to unanimous as a group of wine writers can get. The wine is filled with aromas and flavors of peach and apricot, with a hint of honey on the palate. It’s glorious, the best wine I tasted among all the entries, though its powerful sweetness and high alcohol (18 percent) probably made it more memorable than if it were just another white wine.
However, I tasted a dry Blanc du Bois, also from Haak, and found it to be a pleasant table wine. Inwood also offered a 100percent Tempranillo that was delicious, a splendid companion to the 65-35 blend noted above.
A few other highlights included a beautiful rose from Cap Rock, just outside Lubbock in the High Plains, made of Ruby Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc (95-5), would be a perfect match with Thai food and looks beautiful in a glass. Vino de Terra Alta, from Dallas winery Times Ten Cellars, uses grapes from the Davis Mountains appellation in the southwest part of the state is a complex blend of Tempranillo (37 percent), Syrah (33), Grenache (24), Cabernet Sauvignon (3) and Cabernet Franc (3). Last but not least, a powerful Sangria from LightCatcher winery of Fort Worth which starts with Merlot, adds peaches, brandy and apple juice for a wonderful flavor and a 16 percent alcohol.
The Texas wines I sampled were well-made, clean and flavorful, showing careful handling of the grapes. In their price range, and as table wines, they match wines made anywhere and are outstanding company for dinner.