Fine Wine Is the Pride of Texas
By Athena Lucero
"I love tannat! I've never tasted wine from this grape before," I excitedly commented to Jennifer McInnis, general manager at Bending Branch Winery in historic Comfort, Texas. But I wasn't at the bar with a tasting flight before me. I was at home and taking part in a Zoom webinar about off-the-radar winemaking in the Lone Star State that's turning heads and winning international awards. Webinar participants received a bottle of wine from a member of Texas Fine Wine (our host) and shared our impressions of the fabulous vintages.
COVID times have corralled travelers temporarily, but wine consumption has not waned, with virtual wine tastings as popular as curbside pickup. During the program I learned from wine educator Denise Clarke that Texas is the country's fifth-largest wine- producing state after California, Washington, New York and Oregon and the fifth largest in number of wineries with more than 400. Clarke is also director at Texas Fine Wine, a private group comprised of Texas' five most esteemed wineries - Bending Branch Winery, Brennan Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars, Duchman Family Winery and Spicewood Vineyards, who were also at the webinar. Hearing it "straight from the horse's mouth" was almost as good as being in Texas.
Texas is larger than France and graced with landscapes formed by plains, plateaus, mountains and hills. The diversity of soils and climates explains why Texas can cultivate more than 50 grape varietals, including those less commonly known -- such as Tannat.
Texas has eight AVAs (American Viticultural Area), but the webinar focused on the two largest: the High Plains in the north near Lubbock and Hill Country in the south, 30 minutes from San Antonio.
"Eighty percent of Texas wine production comes from the vast High Plains," Clarke said.
At 4,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level this region has alkaline-rich red sand and clay, and the continental semi-arid climate provides warm weather so the grapes can ripen during the day and rest during cool nights. Spring freezes were once a challenge, but investments have been made in hail netting and innovative wind-fan technology to protect the vines against frost.
Texas Hill Country is hilly and lush with trees. Elevation is between 400 and 2,400 feet, and soil types range from limestone, granite and clay to gravel, alluvial soil and sandstone. Summers are hot, winters are cold and humidity is this region's challenge.
This wide-open viticultural playground of creative possibilities has even inspired some California winemakers to resettle here and create anew their craft with a Texas twang, so to speak.
When a question popped up about how so many varietals can grow in the terroir and semi-arid climate of the High Plains, Julie Kuhlken, sixth-generation co-owner of Pedernales Cellars, where she and her brother produce Spanish- and Rhone-style wines, explained Texas' out-of-the-box way of thinking.