It often comes as a surprise to many people to hear that Texas has a thriving wine industry. Anyone who has traveled through the state's Hill Country region in the past few years has seen evidence of a wine community that attracts tourists from all over the country. But Texas wine is an industry that stretches far beyond the confines of the picturesque Hill Country. In fact, as the fifth largest wine producer in the USA, there are eight wine appellations--or American Viticultural Areas--across the state. Texas and wine have quite a long history. The first wave of Texas wine arrived in the 1600s when Spanish missionaries planted the vineyards in the western part of the state--right about where El Paso is today.
However, winemaking in Texas didn't really take root until the late 1960s. Following California’s foray onto the global wine scene, a few pioneering spirits, including Dr. Clinton "Doc" McPherson of Llano Estacado Winery, Paul Bonarrigo of Messina Hof Winery, and Ed Auler of Fall Creek Vineyards, made a dedicated effort at growing wine grapes commercially in different parts of the state.
In the 1970s, California's success with varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay made it tempting for Texans to try their hand with the same. And while there were a few highlights throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the quality of Texas wine didn’t match up to its West Coast compatriots.
In recent years, things have changed. According to the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, Texas is fifth in the country for wine production. From 2007 to 2009, the number of cases of wines produced in Texas increased by 20 percent, with no signs of slowing down. At last count, there are close to 300 operating wineries across the state, a sharp increase compared to the nearly 180 in 2009.
Is it any good? Actually, yes. Though the quality is not uniformly high across the board, there are many producers who are making beautiful wines that are faring very well in national competitions. Which raises the question, will Texas be an American wine region to reckon with in the next ten years? Many Texans believe so. For one, Texas is blessed with a warm climate and, in parts, soils similar to Spain, Southern France and even the Barossa Valley of Australia, making it a prime spot for producing world class wines. There are eight official viticultural growing areas across the state with a diversity of climates and soils that effect which grapes can grow well and at a consistent level of quality.
The most concentrated and prominent viticultural region is the Hill Country, known for its wine tourism. Here, some four dozen wineries are located around its epicenter, the quaint German town of Fredericksburg. Dozens more wineries are scattered around the region's rolling hills and the count is growing rapidly.
Many may be surprised to find that the High Plains, near Lubbock, in the dusty and desolate Panhandle, is where the lion’s share of grapes are grown for the state. In fact, the High Plains is estimated to have more than 4,000 acres under vine. Many of the vineyards are planted by farmers who originally raised cotton and peanuts, but have turned to grapes for their drought-tolerant nature. The majority of the Hill Country wineries buy some, if not most of their grapes, from the growers in the High Plains.
In the past decade, Texas wine has seen a shift in the grapes being cultivated in the state. A newer generation of Texas winemakers have been able to apply what has worked…and avoid what hasn’t. Much of that growth is due to a change in philosophy of planting to the land and the climate, which means relying heavily on French Rhône, Italian and Spanish grape varieties. Many of today’s top Texas wine producers believe that Texas should leave the vision of being the next great California or Bordeaux grape producer in the gritty High Plains dust. Instead, winemakers and grape growers are putting more emphasis on these grapes:
Mourvèdre: A French Rhône variety know for adding earthy and soft red fruit characteristics to world class blends of Grenache and Syrah, this late-budding grape has recently become a star for grape growers and winemakers alike for both single variety and blended wines alike.
Tempranillo: This Spanish variety is a rustic red grape with dusty tobacco, leather, mushroom and red fruit aromas that has slid into the spotlight as the Texas red wine grape of choice.
Sangiovese: The star grape of Italy’s Tuscany region, this hearty red grape produces robust flavors of cherry, cola and lush dark fruit and offers a balanced structure with mild tannin.
Touriga Nacional: A dark, inky and rustic grape originally used in world class ports from Portugal, this hearty variety grows well in the Mason county area of the Hill Country and yields robust wines balanced with dark fruit, leather and tobacco.
Roussanne: The leaner, citrus and mineral-driven counterpart to white Rhône favorite, Viognier, Roussanne excels in Texas High Plains soils offering bright acidity and balance to white Rhône blends.
Vermentino: A grape known for its white floral, citrus and pear-like aromatics, Vermentino is an Italian varietal from Sardinia that has taken well to Texas soils offering a bright, crisp versatile white wines worth sipping through the hot Texas summers.
Viognier: Hailing from the French Rhône region, this golden-hued white grape offers aromas of apricot, honeysuckle and orange blossom.
The past decade has witnessed a slow, but steady progression of Texas wineries who have carved out a niche in the evolving story of Texas wine. Included are a few benchmark producers.
High Plains - McPherson Cellars
Son of Texas wine pioneer Doc McPherson from the original Llano Estacado winery, Kim McPherson has made a long career in Texas winemaking. Having worked as winemaker in Napa Valley as well as at Llano Estacado Winery and CapRock Winery, McPherson launched McPherson Cellars in 2008. Since then, he's produced a consistent lineup of quality Texas wines at an approachable price. The light and fruity 2013 "Les Copains Red," a red Southern Rhône blend, is an excellent dry red wine for warm weather, and the lush and vibrant 2014 Albariño is an excellent dry white wine for grilled seafood.
Prairie Lands - Brennan Vineyards
Located in Comanche, just between the High Plains and the Hill Country, winemaker Todd Webster works with almost a dozen different grape varieties including Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo on the winery's more than 30 acres of vineyard to produce a solid stable of wines that continue to turn heads with each new vintage. The soon-to-be-released 2013 Lily is a signature white wine blend of Muscat of Alexandria, Roussanne, and Viognier that is a true standout for Texas white wine.
Johnson City - Lewis Wines
Business partners Doug Lewis and Duncan McNabb have spent the past couple of years building on plot of land between Johnson City and Hye. Today, they manage another seven acres of vineyards in the Hill Country and source some of their grapes from High Plains grape growers. Top wines include the quaffable, slightly effervescent 2014 Swim Spot white wine and the robust and deeply structured 2011 Round Mountain Vineyard Reserve made from Tempranillo, Tinta Cao and Touriga Nacional.
Central Hill Country - William Chris Vineyards
Since 2008, William Chris has steadily raised the profile of small town Hye located just between Johnson City and Fredericksburg. The winery specializes in terroir-driven red wines and delicate, finessed white whines. The Enchanté red blend is a consistent favorite, but single varietal bottlings like the 2013 Mourvèdre and 2011 Estate Block Merlot are absolute standouts.
Central Hill Country - Pedernales Cellars
Though growing vineyards for more than 25 years, the Kuhlken family behind Pedernales Cellars didn't launch a full scale winery until 2005. Focusing primarily on Spanish red variety Tempranillo and Southern French white variety Viognier--both of which have garnered the winery numerous international accolades--Pedernales Cellars also releases a handful of other elegantly structured wines including a luscious GSM (Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre).
South Hill Country - Duchman Family Winery
Producing nearly 20,000 cases annually, Duchman Family Winery is has earned an enviable reputation in the state for its award-winning wines made with rusticity and finesse. Rich red Montepulciano and Sangiovese, and bright and crisp white Vermentino are consistent players, but special releases of 2010 Nero D'Avola and 2014 Rosé of Sangiovese are particular darlings that set this winery apart from the rest.
Central Hill Country - Spicewood Vineyards
Just west of Austin along State Highway 71, Spicewood Vineyards originally began in 1992 under the ownership of Edward and Madeleine Manigold, but changed hands in 2007 to the Yates family. Spicewood wines are produced primarily from the 32 acres of estate vineyards with some grapes sourced from the High Plains. Among its top selections, Spicewood has paved the way for Sauvignon Blanc in Texas. The most recent 2014 vintage is crisp and vibrant with hints of lemongrass and yellow daffodil. Red wines are also a strength with the 2012 Estate Tempranillo taking the honor as one of the state's best expressions of the Spanish grape.
North Hill Country - Wedding Oak Winery
At the northern border of the Hill Country, Wedding Oak Winery is an urban winery in the heart of small town San Saba. Making wines primarily wines grown from within the area, winemaker Penny Adams focuses on dry wines from warm climate grapes such as Sangiovese, Trebbiano, and Tempranillo. Though the winery has only been around for a few years, it has fast gained recognition as a contender in a growing family of serious Texas wine producers. Try the rich an alluring 2013 Texas Sangiovese.
Inks Lake - Perissos Vineyards and Winery
A family vineyard and winery tucked deep into the rolling hills of the Burnet area near Inks Lake, Perissos Vineyards and Winery is happily situated on the lush valley floor of the Colorado River Valley. Built almost entirely by hand by Seth and Laura Martin and their family of five children, the property is home to a couple of dogs, three horses, some chickens, and more than a dozen acres of vineyard. Known primarily for wines made from rich, concentrated ripe fruit balanced with earthiness, acidity and a great deal of structure, Perissos is a small producer with a bright future in terms of revealing the best of what Texas wine has to offer. The 2013 Aglianico is a beautiful red wine rich with dark fruit, dusty earth and smooth, yet assertive tannin.
North of San Antonio - Bending Branch Winery
A relative newcomer to the Texas wine scene, Bending Branch Winery and vineyard is a charming property north of San Antonio in the little town of Comfort. With more than 20 acres planted to grapes more suited to warm climates including French Picpoul Blanc and Mourvèdre, as well as Spanish Tempranillo and Italian Vermentino, the winery has fast made a name for itself for its production of Tannat. A dark, inky grape from Southwest France with more recent acclaim from the South American country of Uruguay, Tannat makes rustic, robust wines with rich fruit concentration and grippy tannin. In particular, the 2012 Estate Tannat is a big show-stopper with opulent tart red and black berries framed by elegant, yet firm tannin.