By Ken Schechet
Let’s be honest: Did you ever think you’d be reading a story about wines of the Texas Hill Country? Did I ever think I’d be writing one? However, Texas has a very long wine history, and makes some surprisingly good wine. About 15 years ago on a business trip I had dinner at the Mansion at Turtle Creek, an excellent restaurant just outside of Dallas. On a lark I ordered some Texas wine with the meal and was underwhelmed by it. I recently was in Austin visiting some friends and decided to spend a day in the nearby Texas Hill Country, one of the major wine producing regions in the state, to see how far things had progressed in Texas.
Above all else, Austin is a foodie town. The diverse population has brought their foods with them and most anything is available somewhere in the city. But my favorites are the native Tex- Mex, Country and Barbecue places. Barbecue is a serious thing to me and it doesn’t get any better than around Austin. Beef ribs (the bone from a prime rib), slow cooked for 8 to 12 hours until the meat is falling off, is carnivore heaven. And in fact, the local wine does go well with the local food.
I was surprised to learn that Texas’ wine tradition predates California’s by more than a century. (No need to remember this, either---you will be reminded of it a lot.) In the 1660’s Spanish missionaries established the first vineyards in what is now the United States at the Ysleta Mission near El Paso. They planted Mission grapes, a descendent of grapes brought to the New World by Spanish conquistadores over a century before. Wine was needed to celebrate Mass, and this was a serious business that spread from Mexico north into Texas and California and south into Latin and South America. In the nineteenth century new immigrants from Germany, Italy and France brought European grape varieties to the region, many of which had trouble surviving. This prompted some interesting research.
In 1876 a man named T.V. Munson from Denison, Texas began studying grapes. He traveled throughout the United States and Mexico collecting native grape varieties. From these he developed more than three hundred disease-resistant varieties of grapes and wrote a classic text, Foundation of American Grape Culture, in 1909. When phylloxera struck the vineyards of Europe, Munson shipped native rootstocks to the winemakers there. By grafting European vines onto Munson’s rootstocks many vineyards were saved. He was awarded the French Legion of Honor Cross of Merite Agricole in 1888. Ironically, 40 years later the Texas wine industry that saved Europe was successfully killed by Congress. They passed Prohibition and all the grapevines in Texas were pulled up.
It took until the 1970’s for a wine industry to begin again in Texas, and it mostly produced bad jug wine. In the 1990’s several Texans visiting wine regions in Europe noticed that the soil and the climate they were seeing in places like Tuscany and parts of France reminded them of the Texas Hill Country. A few of them decided to give it a go, and that has resulted in the resurgence in quality and reputation we are seeing in Texas wine today. Texas is now the fifth largest wine producing state and is also way up there in consumption, probably about fourth in the nation.
The Texas Hill Country in the center of the state is one of three major wine growing regions. The other two are the High Plains in the Panhandle and the Trans-Pecos in the southwest. With a little planning you can see a lot of the Hill Country in a day. A good place to start is http://www.texaswinetrail.com, which will give you everything from maps to links to individual winery websites. I simply took U.S. 290 West out of Austin and in a little while began passing wineries. I was lucky to be doing this during April when the bluebonnets were out and the Texas Hill Country was a blaze of color.
Gary and Kathy Gilstrap were perfectly happy working as pharmacists until they took a trip to Tuscany. One thing quickly lead to another, and the next thing you know they started a vineyard. This is not an uncommon story in the Hill Country. Their tasting room opened in 1999. They tend to be known as the home of the Kick Butt Cab, which I found to be tasty but a little thin. Their real strength is their Italian wines. Due Bianco, a blend of Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, was crisp and fruity. Cinque Vino Rosso, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Ruby Cabernet, Sangiovese and Syrah, turned out to be a pleasant wine that reminded me of a soft Italian like Dolcetto. Port Bianco, made form Muscat Canelli fortified with grape spirits and barrel aged for a year, was unusual to say the least. Maybe I’m just not used to 18.5% alcohol and 9% residual sugar. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either.
The star was the Orange Moscato. A nicely balanced wine with a pleasant sweetness, it goes very well with dark chocolate. To prove that point they serve you dark chocolate when you taste it. Seems like a great way to end a meal to me. The tasting room is in a pretty building made from earth from their own property. They use very eco-friendly techniques in their winemaking. A good start to the day.
This is a boutique winery that affirms its grapes are proudly “stomped in Texas”. The owner lives in Austin and has a full time job. Woodrose is a hobby. In this case he got hooked on wine during frequent business trips to California. The winery is 26 acres and was planted in 2000. The tasting room opened in 2003. They also buy grapes from the Lubbock area so most of their wines have a “Texas” appellation. They made 500 cases a year ago, will make 1650 this year, and plan to double that in years to come, but not to grow more than that. They try to sell all they make because the wines are not made for aging. 95% of their wine is sold in the tasting room. Woodrose has a beautiful deck in the back where you can bring a picnic and enjoy their wine. It’s also available for parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc.
A 2006 Sauvignon Blanc was crisp, light and pleasant. 2005 Three Dog White, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, was a big wine, heavier than most whites, made for strong foods. I’d like to try it with salmon. A 2006 Ruby Rosé was described as a “naked cab”. No skins used. A bit sweet but not bad at all. A 2005 Merlot (very dry) and a 2005 Tawny Port were both served with chocolate and were nice with it. They also make a White Merlot, a White Port and more. They’re having fun and producing some promising wine.
The biggest and best known winery in the Hill Country is Becker Vineyards, which was founded in 1992 and had its first bottling in 1996. It is owned by Dr and Mrs. Richard Becker. He has a fulltime job as a doctor but his passion is wine, especially French wine. A reproduction of a German stone barn serves as the tasting room, complete with a large stone fireplace and an antique bar. It is next to an 1880’s log cabin which has been converted into a bed and breakfast. The grounds are quite picturesque and invite you to enjoy the 46 acres of vineyards and fields of Provencal lavender and wildflowers. Becker owns another 29 acres in Ballenger and they buy more grapes from other vineyards. Most of their wines carry a Texas appellation. They have a red granite based sandy soil mixture which drains well. That plus moist cool springs and dry hot summers give promise to their wines.
Their 2006 Viognier was a revelation and the real showstopper of the trip. This may be one of the best Viogniers made in America, full of white peach and floral scents. It is a very smooth and aromatic wine worth seeking out. The powers that be seem to agree because this wine has been served at private dinners at the White House. Their 2005 Provencal Dry Rosé was light and delicate and a bit dryer than French Provencal roses I’ve had. The 2005 Malbec was also light but very pleasant. I would never have guessed it was a Malbec in a blind tasting. The 2005 Prairie Rotie was a blend of Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah and Carignan. It didn’t have the depth of a French Rhone but was pleasant with no aggressive tannins. The 2004 Cabernet-Syrah Reserve had body but at $18.95 was not worth the price. However the 2004 Vintage Port was another big winner. Clean and crisp and tasting of black cherry, plums and violets it was a seriously good wine.
Fredericksburg is a very colorful town of German heritage in the middle of the Hill Country. It is full of German restaurants, gift shops, flower pots, streets wide enough for oxen to make U-turns, and interesting architecture. Main Street, also known as Hauptstrasse, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The town is also home to the National Museum of the Pacific War because of its connection to Admiral Nimitz, a native son. It’s a great place to spend some time.
Right in the middle of town is the Fredericksburg Winery. This place is a blast and that’s because the Switzer family who run it are having more fun than anyone should be allowed to have in a winery. Their motto is “Conserve Texas Water, Drink Texas Wine”. The whole operation is right in front of you. Grapes are purchased. Wines are produced by fermentation in small tanks. Filling, corking and labeling is all by hand. Oma, the grandmother, is known as the antique labeling machine. As benefits a German winery, the wines tend to be off dry or sweet, and the sweetness level is noted on the label. At any given time they make about two dozen wines and would be thrilled if you tried them all. They have new releases almost monthly. The wines are only sold in the winery or through shipping.
My suggestion is to track down Cord Switzer and ask him to teach you Wine 101 WHP, (“Without the Horse Pucky”). The family has found that there’s not much that won’t grow in Texas and have a willingness to try anything and blend anything in a way that I haven’t seen since I visited Australia last year. But they have a tremendous sense of humor about the whole thing. Cord’s philosophy is “A grape is a grape is a grape... Play!” They make a Cabernet that they call Barons Bach Burgundy just to piss off the French. By the way, Texas is bigger than France, another fact you will be constantly reminded of. A good selling wine is called Esor Fo Tenrebac. This is for asking your friends if they’ve had an Esor lately and seeing what they say. The name is Rosé of Cabernet with each word spelled backwards, a dyslectic-friendly wine. The night of December 31, 1999, at the first second after midnight, they started bottling a wine called “First Second”, a meritage blend that was the first wine in the world bottled in the new millennium. Each wine label has a story on it explaining some aspect of Fredericksburg or the Texas Wine industry. These people have a lot of fun and make some pretty good wine. The dessert wines, an award-winning Orange Muscat and a late harvest Sangiovese, are particularly nice. Don’t miss the town or the winery.
Grape Creek is 23 years old, making it the oldest winery in the Pedernales River Valley which is between Fredericksburg and Austin. It was producing 5,000 cases of wine a year but was unfortunately attacked by Pierce’s Disease and is not growing any grapes at the moment. They will replant about 8 acres of disease resistant grapes shortly and expect to have wine in 4 years. They plan to go to 10,000 cases a few years after that. You can still taste and buy the wines they have left. A 2002 Fume Blanc was nice but the acid was fading. A 2004 Petite Rouge, a Sangiovese, Merlot and Semillon blend that was quite light and fruity was very nice. A Cabernet Trois blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Ruby Cabernet, with a touch of Merlot thrown in, was fine but questionable at $16.95. A Port was very full bodied, rich and elegant and one of the better wines of the day. I heard they were having some good results with Tempranillo but there was none available. Let’s hope they get back on line soon.
(Note: As of 2016, Grape Creek Vineyards was revitalized and going strong)
Torre di Pietra
Torre di Pietra is only two years old but is run by a 4th generation winemaker. They produce 16 wines. They grow 50% of their grapes on 46 acres, source 40% from other parts of Texas and import 10% from out of state. Therefore their wines have Texas Hill Country or Texas High Plains appellations or just say “Produced and Bottled by Pietra Vineyards” if they have out of state grapes in them. The wines are only sold out of the tasting room. There is a lovely patio, a gift shop and live music at times. Their top seller is a slightly sweet proprietary blend called Red Flirt. The wine starts sweet but actually finishes dry. In other words, it “flirts” with your palate. It was very nice and won the prize for cutest label of the day. A Moscato was noteworthy and a 2005 Primitivo was surprisingly good but surprisingly expensive at $39.95.
Overall, a day in the Hill Country was great fun and well worth
doing. The wines were better than I thought they would be. A few
were excellent, many were good and a lot were promising works in
progress. Remember, most of these wineries are only a few years
I found that most grapes show very differently here. I tasted Primitivos, Merlots, Malbecs and even Chardonnays that I would never have recognized as such. But reflecting the local terroir is a good thing and gives these wines character. Also as one winemaker told me, “We’re not trying to be California. We want our own style.” Good for them.
There was definitely a tendency to off dry, blush, and sweet wines. This may be a reflection of the area’s German heritage, or a function of the climate, or whatever. But if you think about it, Texas cuisine is pretty spicy and sweet wines go just fine with it. I also like dessert wines and port, and virtually everyone here makes them.
On the way back to Austin I stopped for a snack at a Pit Barbeque in Johnson City. Two crusty old farmers were at the next table talking. Sun-baked faces, calloused hands, worn out Dickies Bib Overalls. They were discussing possible problems with the alcohol level in this year’s Cabernets. Welcome to Texas in the year 2007. In fact, welcome to the United States in 2007. Wine is being made in every state. Wherever you go there are probably wineries nearby and you can be sure they will be fun to visit. Talk to the people and feel their passion for what they are doing. Buy a bottle and support local winemakers. You’ll have a ball.
Texas Hills Vineyard
878 Ranch Road, Johnson City, Texas 78636
662 Woodrose Lane, Stonewall, Texas 78671
464 Becker Farms Road, Stonewall, Texas 78671
247 West Main Street, Fredericksburg, Texas 78624
Grape Creek Vineyards
97 Vineyard Lane, Stonewall, Texas 78671
Torre di Pietra
10915 East US Hwy 290, Fredericksburg, Texas 78624
Have you traveled in the Texas Hill Country, or tried any of the wines from this region? Share your comments and insights with the community!