Best Texas Wines of 2012

This year I had the opportunity to taste through some of Texas’s best wines in preparation for the next edition of The Wine Roads of Texas. The good news is, the state of the art is getting better each year.

I would describe about 10-15% of our wineries as capable of competing on the world stage, and if that sounds stingy, I would say the same thing about California. Even better, virtually every winery had at least one good wine. The best news for folks traveling in Texas is we are there are so many terrific wineries, including, of course, all three of my picks. The wines of 2012 included these three clear winners.

White Wine: Duchman Family Winery’s Vermentino – Cliff Bingham Vineyards. Start with some of the best organic grapes in the wine business from Bingham’s high plains farms and then add the perfect winemaker, Dave Reilly. He is making as good a Vermentino as you will find anywhere on earth.

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Red Wine: Becker Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve – Canada Vineyard. I first tasted this wine along with a large group (two busloads!) of KLRU subscribers and was nearly speechless. When I recovered, I made sure the crowd understood they were tasting a benchmark. Given all the great newish wineries like William Chris, Pedernales, Inwood, etc. I have to admit being surprised that Becker, after 20 vintages, is still setting the standard.

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Dessert Wine: Dotson Cervantes Gotas de Oro. Restaurateur/Chef Damian Mandola called me a few months ago and asked me to come to lunch to meet the first Texas winemakers that would be represented in all Mandola’s markets. I was happy to come because Damian is a lot of fun and the people he wanted me to meet are two of my favorite folks in the Texas wine business, Alphonse Dotson and Martha Cervantes. We had a great time telling tall tales and tasting the wines with a few of Damian’s dishes. Not only did the Gotas de Oro have the unctuous sweetness you find in almost every sweet wine, it also had perfect acidity, something very few Texas dessert wines have.

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So there you have it. I wish I had the time and space to mention all the wonderful Texas wines I tasted this year. The important takeaway is, it is time to start visiting the many (25+) wineries within a two hour drive of Austin. All have a decent wine and many have wines that compare favorably with other U.S. wines. Then you’ll be able to discover the 10%-15% that really are world class. In the meantime, congratulations to Duchman, Becker, and Dotson Cervantes.

Wes Marshall

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Tannat is hot

This is certainly my favorite new-to-Texas variety.  Maybe because it is so suited to our climate (and, I would argue, even more so than to its original home).  Or perhaps because it is intriguingly flexible, transforming itself through various fermentation methods.  Or maybe it is so exciting because it offers Texas winemakers a tool with which to create deep, heavy reds.  In any case, my heart flutters a little each time it’s mentioned, curious about what might be possible as different growers, and different winemakers, try their hand at its potential.

Originally from the Madiran AOC in Southwestern France, Basque Country, it goes by the same name as the appellation.  In this region, the tannins of Tannat can come out in full strength, overpowering many of the other grape’s characteristics.  Because of this, it is often blended with other varieties, like Cabernet Franc.  It was here, and because of Tannat, that micro-oxygenation was invented as a technique to help round out the wine and soften its tannic structure.  In Uruguay, it is called Harriague and is now considered the national grape.  Still powerful on the vine, wine makers employ various types of fermentation practices to soften its gripping finish, including shortened exposure to the skins and numerous pips, which account for much of its tannic nature.  But in Texas, this characteristic celebrated and provides great possibility for flexibility.

Applause to the sun and heat for naturally softening the tannins on the vine.

Usually a drawback when it comes to growing grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, this phenomenon enables Texas winemakers to play with Tannat’s more delicate qualities, its undertones of raspberry, chocolate and subtle red floral notes.  Throughout this year’s research, I encountered three Texas wineries that were investing in Tannat, dedicated to discovering its potential.

The first is Westcave Cellars, where my eyes were opened.  Allan Fetty, part-owner, vineyard manager and winemaker at Westcave is focused on creating clean, balanced, heavy red wines, and had the foresight to plant Tannat in their vineyard.  I tried their Estate Tannat blended with 12% Cabernet Sauvignon and couldn’t believe its weight on the palate and grip on the finish.  It had marvelous complexity of cherries and red plum, highlighted by a slight herbaceous quality.   A perfect steak wine.  You don’t meet many Texas reds like this.  I am sad to report it has already sold out.  But his 2011 is currently aging, and gives the Texas wine drinker something to look forward to.

The second was with Les Constable and Rachel Cook at Brushy Creek.  Les, the ever experimenter, is moving forward slowly with the grape.  He believes in discovering what a varietal can “bring to the party,” unaided, and ages them all unoaked first.  His unoaked Tannat is now blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo in their Three Friends wine, adding weight and structure.  And Rachel is currently playing with it in French oak, testing its flexibility.  I tried some, thieved from the barrel, and was delighted by its more gentle underpinnings of dried red fruit, melded with hints of vanilla from the toast.  It will easily be a stand-alone varietal.  I believe it’s one of the grapes that will truly showcase Rachel’s natural talents.

And the last, and perhaps most known for Tannat, is Bending Branch Winery.  Here John Rivenburgh and his father-in-law Robert Young, are exploring various techniques of both growing and fermenting the variety.  In the vineyard, John is head-training the vines, growing them without wires, encouraging the canopy into a goblet shape.

Like Mouvedre, Tannat’s cordons, or branches, naturally grow upward and are a perfect candidate for this Roman method.  And in the winery, they are playing with two styles of fermentation.  The first is just called “Regular Fermentation” and is denoted by “RF” on the bottle.

The juice sits with the skins and seeds until fermentation is complete, then the wine is placed in barrels to age.  The second is “Extended Maceration,” marked with “EM” on the label.  This technique involves keeping the Tannat on its skins and pips 30 days after fermentation is complete, followed, then by barrel aging.  Side by side, these bottles taste very different.  Regular fermentation results in a very masculine wine- rich, deep, tannic, heavy in the mouth.  And extended maceration brings out the grapes’ feminine qualities- the floral notes, soft vanilla and hints of raspberry.  I had to taste them repeatedly, amazed by the comparison.   

There’s more to come.  Barking Rocks Winery and Red Caboose Winery and Vineyard are planting Tannat, as well as Vijay Reddy and a handful of other High Plains growers.  Another grand step in the discovery of Texas terrior, this grape is worth watching.

Margaret Shugart

education in Texas tasting rooms

After finishing this edition’s tour of Texas wineries, I have headed to France for the summer to lead cycling trips with an active touring company.  Luckily and blissfully, this assignment starts in Provence and the Southern Rhône where we travel through Gigondas, Vacqueyras, and Beames-de-Venise, as well as lesser known Rhône Villages and parts of Ventoux.

I won’t write much about France in this venue because this blog is about Texas and the people we meet with the book, but I would like to take note of my first visit to the wineries in the region and here’s why: they are not so different from Texas.  In fact, it was drinking wine at tasting rooms in Texas that helped me understand what is happening here, more so even than if I had spent this time in Napa Valley, or maybe anywhere else in the United States.  The more I learn, the more I believe Texas is, quite simply, more like Europe than anywhere else in the country (and for many more reasons than just the varieties grown).

The steward of the first tasting room I entered in Gigondas sorted through my strangely accented French to offer an English interaction, which was fortunate because his bi-lingual wine terminology was much better than mine.  I asked a lot of questions, similar to ones I ask when meeting with Texas wine makers and grape growers, and he was just as eager to talk about it as anyone.

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I was shown maps of microclimates, given explanations of terroir and blending techniques across different vineyards, enlightened on different vine training techniques that echoed what I learned at home.  For example, here in the Rhône, Mouvedre is head-trained (a Roman technique where vines are taught to grow upward with no wires, so that they look like goblets) because its cordons naturally reaches toward the sky and because the technique produces better fruit… just like Tannat, also head-trained by Bending Branch Winery.

Head trained Mourvedre in Gigondas, France

John Rivenburgh explains head trained Tannat vines and Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas

The education I received from wise Texas wine folk like Bobby Cox helped me understand why blending grapes from various microclimates adds layers of complexity to a wine.  And pioneers like Les Constable at Brushy Creek Vineyards and Winery helped me understand why setting up a vine library is a good start to a vineyard, or even something to maintain for the entire life of someone’s estate.

And when the wine steward and I got more comfortable, he tested me on a white blend in which I identified 2 of the three grapes (Viognier and Roussane, missing Grenache Blanc) because these grapes are little rockstars in our state and I have tasted very true renderings of their character by our own wine makers.

I am not saying this to brag on myself.  Anyone could do this.  I am saying this to point out something marvelous about Texas tasting rooms: they are educational venues, opening visitors to world wines.  As the pioneering minds of the Texas wine industry are broadening their plantings past the big California three (Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay) and honing in on what this climate and soil can best support, we are being exposed to a vast array of varieties somewhat novel to the American palate, and pronunciation: Tempranillo (think Spanish- does not rhyme with armadillo), Mourvedre, Tinta Cao, Carignane, Cinsault, Vermentino, Albariño, Aliagnico, Dolcetto, etc.  They are beginning to increase in popularity and notoriety because they grow well here and show beautifully from our soil.   And because of this happy trend, Texas tasting rooms are putting them into people’s mouths, both to drink and to say.  This, I believe, is educating our visitors to a much wider world of taste and understanding, tapping Texas wine tourists into a global market, in a way I don’t think even most of California can do.

At the end of my lovely visit with this Gigondas winery, I explained that I was from Texas and interested in wine there, too.  The steward said he had actually met several Texans who visited his tasting room, and that they knew quite a bit about the Gigondas varieties.  Perhaps they studied on their own, but I like to think they had exposure to local renditions as well, and took that knowledge abroad to explore the grapes further.

So my challenge to you, good drinker, is to visit a local winery or two and go for the grape variety you’ve never heard of, then ask your wine stewardess a little about its background.  It’ll take you on a journey around the world through your taste buds.  I think you’ll be delighted at how much there is to learn here at home.

Margaret Shugart

Certenberg Vineyards

For my last stop to vineyards and wineries in Texas before leaving for France, I took the good advice of Wes and met Alphonse and Martha Dotson of Certenberg Vineyard in Voca, Texas.  And good advice it was indeed.

Martha met me by my car with her big, beautiful smile and after a few minutes of chatting, asked if I might be interested in a traditional Guadalajara beef stew she planned to heat up for lunch.  Absolutely and without a doubt.

She welcomed me into their house and Alphonse came to the kitchen.  I was struck first by his charm, then his laid back, centered presence.  He called me “young lady” and offered me a seat.  I took furious notes as they shared the story of how life took them to their present location, grape varieties and the making of their first wine, Dotson-Cervantes “Gotas de Oro”, meaning “Drops of Gold.”  (More on this wine later).

While I can’t share their entire story here- you’ll find it in the book- I will say I was most struck by their faith- in God, and in a higher wisdom to guide them.  They, like just about all vine growers in Texas, have experienced some rough times.  I do believe grape growing in this state is one of the greatest gambles a person can take.  But instead of seeing those trials in a negative light, they both spend their energy looking for lessons, ways to grow and benefit from the challenges.  And continue to tune into their intuitions and blessings for direction.  As we lingered over Martha’s delicious stew: broth cooked from the bone and filled with root vegetables, greens, spices, chunks of tender meat and whole corn on the cob, all topped with fresh cilantro, sliced avocado and squeezed lime, I just enjoyed watching them interact, clearly still in love after 29 years together.  They affirmed each other across the table, helping one another complete stories and laughing at the times they’ve had together.  In all my experience, I’ve learned this kind of love always leads to good things.

And that brings us to “Gotas de Oro”.  They wanted a sweet wine that could expand past just dessert, and decided on a muscat canneli with a little chardonnay blended in.  Many people told them that you don’t blend chardonnay into anything; you blend other varieties into chardonnay.  But Ed Auler, the winemaker, agreed and their collaboration produced a very well balanced bottle.  I tried it at Fall Creek Vineyards the week before and was carried away with its citrus sweetness, finished off with a touch of cream, the malolactic brought by the chardonnay.  Its balanced acidity held up to our tiramisu and the finish was long and delightful.  It was perfect for dessert, but if given the chance, I could’ve easily enjoyed the whole bottle by itself.

Interested in trying it yourself?  It will be featured Mother’s Day through July 4th at all Mandola’s Markets around Austin, and their Trattoria Lisina in Driftwood, Texas.  Test the tiramisu pairing, drink it after the meal, or enjoy throughout the experience.

Or head out to Fall Creek Vineyards in Tow, Texas where you can try and buy “Gotas de Oro”, as well as several other wines made from Certenberg Vineyard grapes.

Margaret Shugart

relationships

Yes, growing grapes is farming, and most people I have met farmed other crops before they took up a vineyard.  But there’s something very different about this sort of agriculture and its product, and certainly something special about it in Texas.  In one word: relationships.

I recently attended a grape growers meal held by Becker Vineyards.  They invited all the people who grow their grapes to dinner, then paired single vineyard wines with each course.  As the food came to the table, the grape growers from that specific vineyard were asked to stand and share something about that year’s harvest, or about that particular grape, or a story.  It was so intimate.

Jet Wilmeth with his single vineyard Lone Oak cabernet

Touring the different vineyards in Lubbock, it began to dawn on me how different growing wine grapes is from growing, say, cucumbers, which many of the farmers in that region have done.  For one, as Jet Wilmeth of Diamante Doble Vineyards described with his previous cucumbers, much of the crop (the “imperfect” fruit) is left to rot or thrown away.  The farmer has very little say in his harvest.  And second, those cucumbers (or pumpkins or cotton) go into the market and the farmer seldom sees the final product, and certainly does not receive credit for it.

But with grapes, and especially in Texas, it is very different.  The farmer, in essence, creates a paint of sorts and turns it over to the winemaker/ artist.  The winemaker then creates a piece of art and hands it back to the farmer (and sells it en masse) in the form of a bottle.  Oftentimes the vineyard is placed on the label, giving the farmer direct credit.  This became clear sharing a lunch with the Bingham Family as they served wines made soley from their grapes.  Or at a dinner with the Newsoms, Canadas and Wilmeths, each family providing a bottle of wine from their soil.  The relationships between the drink and the earth, and between the farmer and the winemaker, were clear as day.

VJ Reddy and Bobby Cox standing in front of Reddy Vineyards

My favorite moment of this Becker dinner came when VJ Reddy stood to explain the Viognier made from his grapes.  He talked about how old the vines were and how, this whole time, he had hoped for someone to make the grapes into their true expression of wine.  And how the Beckers had finally done this.  He expressed his gratitude and thanked the Beckers directly, to which they quickly and emphatically replied, “No, thank YOU.”

This doesn’t happen with peanuts or pumpkins.  I’d dare to say it’s something better.

Wes Marshall in the Hill Country

Click here to read what Wes Marshall has to say about William Chris Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars, Woodrose Winery, the new Messina Hof Hill Country tasting room and Spicewood Vineyards, all making “Sancerre-ly Impressive Texas Wine.”