Drought downsizes Texas vineyards

It’s been a rough year for Texas wines — even ones with names as ten-gallon tough as Texas Hills Vineyard’s Kick Butt Cab. It’s all about the drought, and Texas Hills, which proudly calls itself “Texas’ largest ‘mid-size’ winery,” has ratcheted production down to 3,000-4,000 cases this year. Last year’s yield was 17,000 cases, and as all of their wine is made from Texas fruit (no juice from California or New Mexico, in other words) there’s no way to make up the discrepancy. Most other Hill Country winemakers are in the same high-and-dry boat.

Even talk-tough Texans can’t do anything about the weather (though our Governor might suggest we could invoke higher powers), but as a recent seminar and tasting at the Pearl Studio suggested, Hill Country wines are now more than ready to speak for themselves — and quite eloquently at that. The reason? Experience. And no small amount of experimentation.

Richard Becker, one of the state’s early achievers, is justifiably proud of his cabernet sauvignon, one of which was recently mistaken for a second-growth Bordeaux. While he’s embarked on trials to identify single vineyards with distinctive characteristics, he also says that Becker Vineyards has planted over 20 other varietals as part of a search to find the best grapes for their situation, with viognier, malbec, grenache, and rousanne among them.

Robert Young of the still-young Bending Branch Winery near Comfort, has settled on tannat as a “signature” grape, calling it a “true champion of the terroir unique to Texas.” Tannat is a burly grape from the Madiran region of southwest France that is now widely grown in Uruguay. He might well have said terroirs in the plural, of course, as he has also found picpoul, a white grape best known in southern France, to be performing well. The folks at Dry Comal Creek have found their calling card in the Black Spanish grape, long-established in Texas and known elsewhere as lenoir, among other names. Flat Creek Estate has employed the sangiovese of Tuscany for their Super Texan blend. Others such as Pedernales Cellars are looking to hot-weather Spanish grapes such as tempranillo.

Don’t expect the same expression from Texas tempranillo as would be exhibited by a mature wine from Rioja; there’s neither the vine age nor the history. But the tempranillo from Spicewood Vineyards was nonetheless vibrant with cherry notes and even a whiff of meatiness. The same grape rendered into the Toro de Texas by Texas Hills was completely different — plummy, bacony, with a hint of spice from American oak. For its part, the non-vintage Bending Branch Texas Tannat would never be confused for a tannic, brooding Madiran.

Other standouts of the tasting included a beautiful, smoky rose of syrah from Driftwood Estate Winery and a bright, beautifully fruity and elegant High Plains-grown Montepulciano from Duchman Family Winery in Driftwood. This is the kind of wine that shows just how far the industry in Texas has come — and it’s also fairly priced at around $15. Hey, October is Texas Wine Month; it’s long past time to give Lone Star wines a break — and a more than just a taste.

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