Texas Wine Month: Go local with these unconventional vineyard picks

Texas wine tourism? Just in time for Texas Wine Month, there’s an app for that.

In the beginning, there was no app of any kind. Lacking sage advice from Siri, the early pioneers—Becker Vineyards, Fall Creek and Llano Estacado among them—initially hitched their fortunes to the so-called “noble” grapes: cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot. Many Texan producers continue to insist on cabs and chards, and there have been some surprising successes. But the current generation is looking less for nobility than it is for suitability, planting grapes such as tempranillo from Spain’s severe Rioja region and exploring the brooding tannat of Southwestern France.

“There wasn’t any wine consultant [who knew Texas] 10 years ago,” says Tim Drake, Flat Creek Estate’s winemaker. “But in time, we came to feel that this was more of an Italian environment than French and that off-the-radar grapes were best.” Little-known montepulciano, for example. But he also says that some grapes that should do well in Texas heat just don’t survive the other scourges—late spring freezes, hailstorms and sudden downpours that can cause mildew. “We also have every disease there is,” he says.

One of Flat Creek’s signatures is its Super Texan red blend, a wine Drake says “embodies the spirit of Texas without losing the character of its main component, sangiovese [best known to us for its role in Chianti].” Another award-winning wine is their pinot grigio, “a grape I would never recommend for Texas,” admits Drake. “It was the only white Italian varietal available at the time, and we just got lucky [in where we planted it].”

When pressed, most Hill Country winemakers admit to a certain amount of luck and running vines up the flagpole. David Kuhlken, winemaker and part-owner at Pedernales Cellars, says “the first grapes we planted (chardonnay, cabernet, merlot and sauvignon blanc) were [in hindsight] predictable experiences; merlot is the only one that lasted in meaningful amounts.” Now they’re cultivating almost exclusively Spanish and Rhône grapes, with tempranillo among the most important. (Kuhlken credits Alamosa Cellars with bottling the first commercially viable Texas tempranillo and Newsom Vineyards in the High Plains for pioneering its cultivation.)

The grapes for Pedernales’ Texas Viognier (its Reserve Viognier just won a double-gold medal at a prestigious French competition) all come from the southern edge of the High Plains near Lubbock. Many other Texas winemakers have had success with this increasingly familiar Rhône grape, now thoroughly at home on the range. Less familiar to us is Spain’s albariño. “It’s got potential, but it’s fussy to grow and [is] taking six to seven years to reach [a meaningful] yield level. We can’t draw too many conclusions yet,” admits Kuhlken.

Bob Young of Bending Branch Winery near Comfort has made up his mind about one unfamiliar varietal. “Tannat is our signature [red] grape; this may be its sweet spot on the planet,” he says. Young is also happy with picpoul blanc, a grape most associated with France’s Languedoc. “It retains its acidity more than most whites in Texas,” he says. Young and his son-in-law, John Riverburgh, have planted 20 acres at the winery, and they also source from the High Plains and even California. “But if we purchase a grape [elsewhere], we’re also growing it here—and we try to match terroirs,” says Young. The Texas wine industry may need a little help from its friends for a while—and this being Texas, nobody agrees on what grapes will end up on top—but you don’t need a smartphone to see that the future looks bright.

For information on the Texas wineapp, go to texaswineandtrail.com