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Texas — Yes, Texas — Is the Best Under-the-Radar Wine Region in the US

by Kathleen Willcox

posted on January 09, 2020

Photo Courtesy: iStock/webphotographeer

The wine culture of Texas is as diverse, laid-back, innovative, bold, and big as the Lone Star State itself. It’s true that wine may not be the first food or drink that comes to mind when you consider visiting Texas (frito pie, BBQ, sweet tea and margaritas, yes; a local Trebbiano, no), but that is slowly, but surely changing.

The road to being welcome in the storied cellars of America’s most influential wine connoisseurs — you know, the folks who swear they can detect notes of both petrol and banana in their juice — has been long and fraught with drama.

THE ROOTS

As early as the 1650s, wine was being produced in Texas. Spanish missionaries planted vineyards near El Paso, but the European grape varietals weren’t suited for the region’s terroir. (Other early vineyards throughout the states faced similar problems.) Over the next three centuries, the wine industry stumbled along, barely making it past Prohibition, until a few brave pioneers in the 1970s decided to turn what was widely thought to be ideal cotton-farming land into grape-growing country.

These Lone Star pioneers launched their operations just as America started getting serious about wine. For context, this decade marked a major shift both in the quality and perception of American wine, marked by the Judgment of Paris. In 1976, two California wines (Chateau Monteluna and Stags’ Leap Winery) scandalized the wine world by beating out French producers in a widely-publicized blind tasting conducted by France’s leading wine experts. (Remember how the planet’s paradigm shifted when Kim Kardashian visited Donald Trump at the White House? The world’s mind was just as blown by the results of the Paris Wine Tasting).

While it’s easy to dismiss a bunch of Burgundy-obsessed oenophiles sobbing into their crystal decanters over the tragic appropriation of Old World wine culture, that blind tasting helped launch a worldwide wine craze that has been an economic boon for New World regions from Argentina to Australia.

(Photo Courtesy: iStock/Instants)

The late Clinton “Doc” McPherson has been widely credited as one of the boldest pioneers of the nouveau Texas wine movement, bravely establishing the first post-Prohibition winery, Llano Estacado Winery, in the state in 1976. Thanks to the efforts of McPherson and other trailblazers, Texas is now the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the US, behind California, Washington, New York, and Oregon. There are 4,500 acres under vine here between approximately 400 wineries, and tourists have taken notice; 1.7 million visitors head to Texas just for the wine.

Texas is huge of course (its land mass is larger than France). Within its borders lie eight recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), with vastly-different climates and topographies that shape a wine’s final flavor and character (aka terroir). So just as the Champagne region of northeastern France produces a dry, creamy, apple-tinged fizz, and the southern region of Beaujolais yields delightfully-fruit-forward Gamay gulpers, Texas AVAs yield wines with their own distinct characteristics.

Of course, certain Texas AVAs are more respected than others: The two biggies are Texas High Plains, and Texas Hill Country. Texas High Plains accounts for about 80-percent of the grape production in Texas, due in part at least, to its favorable climate and land. Classic varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc flourish in the High Plains’ semi-arid climate, with elevations of 3,000-4,000 feet, and rich red sand and clay soil over caliche. Other, lesser-known grapes commonly found in Italy also do well in Mediterranean like terroir (Montepluciano, Sangiovese, Tempranillo).

Texas Hill Country, is the largest AVA in Texas in terms of land, with 9 million acres within its borders, but the second-largest in terms of grapes growing, with 1,000 acres under vine. Elevation here varies from 425-2,400 feet, and the soil is limestone, granite, clay, and gravel. Here, visitors will find a lot of delicious Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, plus lesser-known varietals like Touriga Nacional and Mourvédre.

(Photo Courtesy: iStock/willhowecreative)

Visitors will find that the Texas terroir coaxes aromas and flavors out of grapes that, in the bottle, echo some of the world’s most-beloved wine regions. But Texas terroir has a spirit all its own, say the state’s winemakers.

“Texas has the unpredictability in seasons similar to Bordeaux, with soils and considerations of altitude that make it more in keeping with parts of Spain,” explains David Kuhlken, head winemaker at Stonewall’s Pedernales Cellars.

Todd Crowell of Spicewood Vineyards likens his terroir to Spain’s Ribero del Duero, as does Brennan Vineyard’s winemaker Todd Webster, adding that the same grapes that flourish across the pond — Viognier, Muscat, Tempranillo, and Nero D’Avola — do well in his vineyard in Texas.

THE SPIRIT

The vibe found at Texas wineries (and their tasting rooms) reflects the spirit of the state itself, says one of the Lone Star’s most prolific and well-traveled wine writers, Michelle Williams of Rockin Red Blog.

“Texas wine is improving with every vintage, and the attention it’s finally getting from outsiders is well-deserved,” she says. “Around 20 years ago, grape growers and winemakers stopped planting what the majority of the country was drinking, like Pinot and Chardonnay, and started planting grapes that actually flourish here in our Mediterranean-like climate.”

Now, some of the most prominent wineries are planting white grapes frequently found in Italy and Spain, like Viognier, Vermentino, Trebbiano, and Albarino. Well-regarded red varietals include Tempranillo, Tannant, Montepulciano, and Cinsault.

In addition to embracing grapes that actually suit the soil, wineries are embracing a spirit of hospitality that reflects the Texas style of living.

“I came to Texas from Oregon 16 years ago,” says Matt McGinnis, the founder of Austin-based marketing consultancy Pen&TellUs. “And, like many West Coast wine drinkers, I am embarrassed to say I was dismissive at first of the idea of Texas wine. But when I started actually trying it, and visiting the tasting rooms, I was blown away not only by the quality of the wine, but by the incredible spirit of hospitality that pervades the tasting room experience in Texas.”

Unlike the inadvertently pretentious atmosphere that wine newbies encounter in some of the better-known wine regions of the US, tasting rooms in Texas come with a zesty welcome more akin to what you might expect to find when visiting one of the state’s world-famous roadside BBQ shacks for brisket.

And while Texas has begun garnering major awards in national and international tasting competitions, it’s still relatively small-scale, meaning most of the wine produced in-state is consumed in-state. (In other words, if you’re thirsty for more, book a trip to Austin. Our favorite place to crash is Hotel Saint Cecilia, a moderately-priced luxury hotel in the heart of South Congress.)

(Photo Courtesy: iStock/frantic00)

THE LOGISTICS

As noted, there are about 4,500 acres of grapes under vine in the Lone Star State, and 400 wineries spread across millions of acres of land. The best wineries are often a 30-minute (or more) drive from each other, which may sound daunting. Fortunately, many are located near two of Texas’ biggest tourist hubs (Austin and San Antonio), making a visit to wine country an accessible day trip to visitors of those cities.

So, plan ahead, make appointments, and designate a driver. (Austin Wine Tours and Austin Detours are two popular wine-tour companies, but there are dozens of options). To get you started on your itinerary, here are a few of our favorite stops:

SPICEWOOD VINEYARDS

1419 County Road 409 in Spicewood, about 45 minutes from Austin. The tasting room welcomes families, pets, and picnics. Try the Sauvignon Blanc or Tempranillo.

DUCHMAN FAMILY WINERY

13308 Farm to Market 150, in Driftwood. Try the Vermentino and the Trebbiano. All wines are made from 100-percent Texas-grown grapes, and the winery is about 35 minutes from Austin. Bonus: it’s close to BBQ classic, The Salt Lick.

FALL CREEK VINEYARDS

1820 County Road 222 in Tow, a little under two hours from Austin; or 18059 Farm to Market 1826 in Driftwood, about 35 minutes from Austin. One of the pioneering wineries in Texas, Fall Creek is beloved for its premium vintages (try the Sauvignon Blanc) and its easy elegance. Pair flights with generous platters of local cheese and charcuterie.

WEDDING OAK WINERY

316 East Wallace Street in San Saba, almost two hours from Austin; or 100 Legacy Drive in Fredericksburg, a little over an hour from Austin. While the main tasting room is in San Saba, the second location in Fredericksburg has become popular for its views of Tempranillo and Mourvedre grapes on the vine. It’s also close to one of the state’s best wine-focused restaurants (see below for more on the Cabernet Grill). Try the Roussane and Sangiovese.

PEDERNALES CELLARS

2916 Upper Albert Road, in Stonewall, a little over an hour from Austin. The tasting room at Pedernales has a deck shaded with trees. Try the Tempranillos and blends sourced from vineyards in the Texas Hills and the High Plains. Picnics are allowed.

4.0 CELLARS

10354 E U.S. Highway 290 in Fredericksburg, a little over an hour from Austin. 4.0 Cellars has become immensely popular because it serves wines from three pioneering, well-regarded Texas producers (Brennan Vineyards, Lost Oak Winery, and McPherson Cellars), in one place. Plus they serve legendary Texas farmstead cheese, Velduizen.

CABERNET GRILL

2805 S. State Highway 16 in Fredericksburg, a little over an hour from Austin.

In addition to serving classic Texas Hill Country cuisine (like Texas Twinkies, or bacon-wrapped jalapenos stuffed with beer sausage and redneck cheddar, served with jezebel dip), it is one of the few restaurants in the state to feature a 100-percent Texas wine list. Even Wine Enthusiast approves, naming it one of America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants.

DAI DUI

2406 Manor Road in Austin. Dai Dui is about as homegrown as you can get, featuring snout-to-tail local provisions and an-all Texas wine list. The chef is so dedicated to local provisions, the kitchen cooks with Texas olive oil and fat from locally-raised hogs, beef, chicken, and ducks. There’s also a butcher shop and a taqueria on-site.

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