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Talking About Grapes: the Texas Hill Country Wine Roadshow

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Nichole Bendele, left, of Becker Vineyards, pours wine for sampling.

By Cecil Flentge

Texas Wine Month got a head start Thursday with a series of tastings, dinners, and seminars in Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio.

In San Antonio, panelists at the Pearl, for the Texas Hill Country Wine Roadshow,  joined their counterparts in the other cities as they met with wine professionals, business people and wine aficionados. No surprise: Their focus was all about the the ripening quality of wine from the Texas Hill Country AVA (American Viticultural Area).

During a seminar at the Pearl Studio, a panel discussed some history of the progress and development of wines in the Hill Country, as well as their goals and aspirations for the future.

Dr. Richard Becker

Dr. Richard Becker, of Becker Vineyards, one of the pioneering winemakers in the Texas Hill Country, outlined the process of trying many grape varietals to find what works with the climate and soil.  He used an example of single vineyard wines as part of the refinement in their experimentation, showing the differences in flavor and complexity of wines from neighboring areas.

When questioned, Becker stated that factor may define smaller AVAs in the future.  This is a slow process, but part of Becker’s goal is to “make wines that will compete on the world stage.”

This determined attitude was echoed by Dr. Robert Young, of Bending Branch Winery in his presentation “In Search of the Hill Country Wine Zone”.  He spoke about different soil compositions and the need to site the vineyards carefully, with higher altitude being the key to success.  “We are all trying to find the sweet spot, the right place with the right grape.”

None know this better, though sadly in hindsight, than Sabrina Hauser, of Dry Comal Creek Vineyard.  She was speaking for her father and winemaker, Franklin Hauser, and outlined the initial successes Dry Comal Creek had before Pierce’s Disease laid waste to their vines.  Pierce’s is carried by the Glassy-winged Sharpshooter.

But, that experience prompted the Hausers to “cowboy up” and find a way around the problem.  Their vineyards are at a lower altitude that is much more prone to this pest, so they looked for other grapes that could resist the disease. They found a great one in a variety called Black Spanish. Now, they have planted Black Spanish grapevines (aka Lenoir, Jacquez) which are thriving. The latest harvest brought in record tonnage.

This grape has a venerable history. It goes back at least 150 years in Texas and it was already thriving when Val Verde Winery was established in 1883, outside of Del Rio.

Hauser also offered a unified theme of improving Texas wines:  She referred to the 1976 tasting that pitted California wines versus French wines as dramatized in the movie “Bottle Shock”.  “The goal is to be in a ‘Bottle Shock’ tasting, but with Texas wines,” she said.

Lofty goals and hard work may be paying off for the 30 wineries in the Texas Hill Country AVA.  In the most recent quarter, national wine magazines Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast have had multiple articles about the Hill Country.  Checking the Wine Spectator’s online rating lists, Texas wines were found with ratings from 85 to 90 on their 100-point scale, ratings that wineries anywhere would be proud to receive.

So is it time to try Texas wines again?  Sampling wines offered at the seminar. I found Tempranillo, Tannat, and Grenache-based red wines that were delightful.  More of the same delight was to be had with white wines from Viognier, Rousanne, and a bright and tangy Picpoul, which may be the perfect match for Gulf oysters.

So, yes, Texas wines are developing well — and as the vines mature, so will the wine.

For more information about Texas Wine Month activities in the Texas Hill Country, click here.

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