Two distinctive Hill Country wineries show why Texas Wine Month is well worth celebrating

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click to enlarge Silouan Bradford of Saint Tryphon shows off some of his winery's tasty output. - Ron Bechtol
Ron Bechtol
Silouan Bradford of Saint Tryphon shows off some of his winery's tasty output.
With more than 500 wineries driving an economy valued at $13 billion, it’s clear Texas wine has long passed the all-hat-and-no-cattle phase.

That there’s red, white and rosé gold in them there hills is further underscored by other statistical rankings that put the Texas Hill Country among the best most-visited wine producing regions in the US. Texas Wine Month, which takes place in October, celebrates this and more.

Take that, Napa!

Having recently been back to California wine country for the first time in years, I would be saddened to see U.S. Highway 290 between Frederiksberg and Dripping Springs come to resemble Napa’s wine-drenched Route 29. The similarity of highway numbers is already a little scary. Of course, if there’s an increase in Texas wines’ quality along with sheer numbers then I’ll reluctantly reconsider.

But as a hedge, we’re going to put October’s Texas Wine Month focus on two wineries off the already well-beaten path: Saint Tryphon outside of Boerne and Bending Branch near Comfort. Both share major similarities and significant differences. Between them, they may also suggest the future of Texas wine.

‘Fully and honestly expressive’

Saint Tryphon Farm and Vineyard at 24 Wasp Creek Road is a small operation by Texas standards. It currently produces 2,000 cases a year. Spilled across its acres are a vintage farmhouse, an arbor and tasting room, a couple of acres of grapes most Texans have never heard of, a few sheep — and just enough room for a helicopter to land to collect a couple of tasters.

“This doesn’t happen every weekend,” admits Silouan Bradford, Saint Tryphon’s owner, operator, tractor driver and dreamer.

Bradford didn’t leave college with a major in philosophy and literature intending to make wine. In fact, his sights were set on a monkish vocation at a monastery in Kendalia. But he ended up leaving at age 22. After landing a job with grocer H-E-B, he moved on to a wine distributor representing “platinum-level wines,” including “all the Texas pioneers.”

Eventually, Bradford met Lewis Dickson, the iconoclastic proprietor of La Cruz de Comal Winery near Canyon Lake. In 2011, Dickson started helping Bradford realize his nascent dream of producing wines “with a story to tell.” That story included minimal wine-making intervention, wild yeast fermentation and some grapes that those pioneers of Texas wines might never have considered — among them, Black Spanish and Blanc du Bois, which was developed to be heat-resistant.

Dickson’s cuttings from those two ended up at Bradford’s small, Wasp Creek plot. So did a key Dickson dictum: “I want my wines to be fully and honestly expressive [of place], even if that expression, like free speech, offends some.”

Bradford’s interpretation of “place” has evolved since then to embrace grapes from Texas High Plains sources — grapes that nonetheless represent the recent realization that the so-called “noble” Cabernets and Chardonnays, for the most part, aren’t especially suited to Texas’ climate or soil. On his current play list are Texas-grown varietals such as Mourvedre and Cinsaut, originally from France’s southern Rhône Valley; Albariño hailing from Spain; and Tannat, a dark and brooding grape that found fame in Madiran near France’s Pyrenees.

Bradford and others are now touting Tannat in Texas, though I suggest you first taste your way through his Tempranillo, his beautifully acid-balanced Nectar du Terrior dessert wine and his Muscat Pet-Nat, a naturally bottle-fermented, lightly sparkling charmer. Then do the Tannat — it’s an ender, not a beginner.

Nurture versus nature

For Bending Branch, founded in 2009 by Dr. Robert W. Young and his wife Brenda, the so-called “heart of darkness” grape actually was a beginner, a focus of development for what Young now calls his “Tannat House of Texas.” This isn’t hyperbole on Young’s part either. His Tannats have matured into truly impressive wines since their 2008 introduction.

In their focus on Tannat, and in their experimentation with unique grape varieties, Young and Bradford are in complete accord. Their approach could hardly be more different when it comes to methods of production, though.

Young believes in scientific nurture in addition to nature.

A tour of the Bending Branch facility — there’s also a tasting room in Comfort called Ursa at Branch on High — will reveal imposing pieces of equipment that aren’t there for show. Young was the first to introduce Texas to Cryo-Maceration, in which grapes are briefly frozen to break down cell walls and release color, tannin and aromatic compounds. Same goes for Thermoflash, which does essentially the same thing but with heat and steam.

Some credit the winery’s string of awards at prestigious competitions at least partially to the techniques.

But grape source also matters. Bending Branch grows of its fruit in vineyards surrounding the winery and also has another operation in California. However, its partnerships with growers in the Hill Country, High Plains and West Texas help it complete a portfolio that includes Petite Syrah, Malbec, Mourvèdre and Souzao among the reds and Picpoul Blanc, a new Texas favorite, among the whites.

One of the oldest and best-regarded of those growers is Newsome Vineyards, established in 1986, which now encompasses 148 acres at a 3,700-foot elevation near the New Mexico line. Starting with Cabernet Sauvignon, as did most Texas growers and winemakers, Newsome now cultivates 19 grape varieties and serves 12 Texas wineries.

By helping define a sense of place, they, too, are driving the future of Texas wines.

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