God Bless Texas (Wine)!
Let’s take a more editorial approach to this article because there is a personal anecdote I’d like to share.
Every year, a group of friends and I go to a US city that we’ve been eager to explore, and we always plan a day of wine tasting. Last year we found ourselves in the Willamette Valley outside of Portland, OR, and this year, we happily headed to Austin, TX. I posted in a professional wine group whose name I will not mention looking for winery recommendations ahead of time, and while most people provided great tips, one person wrote: “You’re in Texas. LOL. Not known for wine.”
I didn’t know the person or how to read their tone, but in the context of everything else (my original question and literally everyone else’s answers) it came off a little condescending and a lot uninformed.
Determined to prove ‘Mystery Poster’ wrong, the adventure into Texas Wine Country began!
A quick history of the industry and where it is today
Franciscan priests planted the very first vineyards in North America in what would become Texas in 1659, and European settlers following mission outposts brought their own vine cuttings to be planted through the 1800s. The state’s oldest winery, Val Verde, dates back to 1883.
Like in the rest of the US, Prohibition slowed Texas’ growing wine scene when it was enacted in 1920, so the state’s modern winemaking history is short, technically dating back to 1933 when Prohibition ended, but really only back to the 1970’s when interest was renewed by a group of investors and a Texas Tech horticulturist who would eventually become the founders of Llano Estacado outside of Lubbock. Change took place quickly; today Texas has eight AVA’s, over 400 wineries, and several pioneering winemakers such as Chris Brundrett, who Wine Enthusiast dubbed as one who is ‘redefining American wine’ in 2018. The Texas wine industry employs over 104,000 people and pays over $4 billion in wages annually. So that’s 104,000 more people on my side, Mystery Poster!
The region itself
American Viticultural Areas, or AVA’s, must contain distinctive qualities to be designated. Texas has huge AVA’s, which should come as no surprise: Texas Hill Country AVA covers 9 million acres, and Texas High Plains AVA covers 8 million, although in total the state only has about 4,500 acres of vineyard farmland. Texas Hill Country and the High Plains are the largest and most well known regions. The others are Bell Mountain, Escondido Valley, Fredericksburg, Masilla Valley, Texas Davis Mountains, and Texoma.
Texas is roughly the same size as the country of France, and is generally classified as having subtropical and continental climates. Vineyards are often planted at higher elevations where it is breezy and cooler for this reason, and most of the grapes that we saw on our tour in Texas Hill Country were late-budding Rhone, Spanish, and Italian varieties - read Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese for reds, and Viognier, Roussanne, and Albariño for whites - since storms and frost are such a threat early in the growing season.
There are a lot of interesting conversation points when it comes to Texas wine, such as energetic and innovative winemakers, the accompanying food scene, and Texas’ burgeoning international presence. Texas AVA laws is one such discussion.
AVA laws set standards for growing regions, such as alcohol minimum and maximums, blend limits, and labeling requirements similar to the EU’s AOP system. AVA laws require that wine labeled from ‘Texas’ must contain at least 75% of Texas-grown grapes, meaning the origin of the remaining 25% is up to the producer - grapes can come from anywhere. Critics say this standard produces wine that is not truly representative of its Texas label, but an interesting fact is that when the law was written, Texas’ industry was so young, there simply were not enough grapes available in the state to justify mandating a higher percentage. This is changing, and similar to conversations happening in Oregon that involve some producers pushing for a 100% grape of origin standard, several producers in Texas are also working toward a 100% standard. Loopholes at the local level sometimes allow for abuse, and a consumer may end up with generic California wine with a label implying that it’s actually Texas wine. (This is usually wine made for local consumption however, not what you will find in a wine store outside the state, a restaurant, or from a Texas wine club, so don’t fear if you’ve just poured yourself something from our list!) Winelala is going to explore this a little further in another post.
For a wine to be varietally labeled, such as ‘Tempranillo’, it must contain a minimum of 85% of the grapes stated on the label, and if a wine is labelled as coming from a specific AVA, such as Texas Hill Country, (not just ‘Texas’) the minimum is also 85%.
Recommendations from the Texas Hill Country
Our team had a great day soaking up all of this new info and lots more at three wineries that we are thrilled to recommend. These links are NOT sponsored. Our complete list of Texas wine recommendations will be in a separate post in the Premium section.
Pedernales Cellars - Erik led us through a tasting of some great bottles, but Winelala’s pick of the day was the 2016 Family Reserve, which was an interesting blend of tempranillo, malbec, merlot, mourvèdre, sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, and petit verdot. It was deep and rich but not overwhelming, and contained black and red fruit, cocoa and spice, and red and purple floral notes. The view from the winery was AMAZING and was actually chosen as one of the best in the world by National Geographic Magazine.
Grape Creek Vineyards - John did a great job leading us through a very informed guided tasting, which is Winelala’s favorite kind. He explained the grapes, blends, techniques and philosophies behind each of the wines. Here, we chose the Bellisimo as our favorite, a blend of sangiovese, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. Also, the winery will soon be opening Heath Sparkling Wines, the ONLY winery in Texas to feature vintage sparkling wine only, so we got to sample a flight that was just divine, comprised of a chenin blanc, pinot noir, and chardonnay. The tasting room will open in June of this year.
Becker Vineyards Estate Winery - Our tasting here consisted of the entirety of the dry wine list, and we even got to try a Texas Malmsey!! Again, the full list of recommendations will be published in the premium section, but our favorite wine was the 2017 Petit Sirah Reserve . We found lots of layers of blueberries, cocoa, herbs, and vanilla.
‘Not Known for Wine.’
Well, it will be. Because it already is - almost two million tourists a year visit Texas wine country.
Winelala was built on the premise of highlighting lesser, smaller batch wines, wineries, and producers. We had so much fun finding these in Northern Italy in our early days, but uncovering them in the US and the rest of North America for the past few years has been a blast too. And we’ve found quite a few - wines from Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ontario, and now Texas have all made our lists, right alongside some of the bigger names.
With an increasing number of vineyards, ongoing experimental research, tighter labeling requirements, winemakers who are being highlighted on the world stage, one of a kind facilities, an energetic restaurant industry, and plenty of money and space to go big - Texas’ wine scene seems to be going Texas Strong.
LOL indeed, Mystery Poster!