Are Texas wines for real? A recap of the Austin Food & Wine Festival

We have a lot of pride in our state. Everything is not only bigger, but also better in Texas. Is that really true of everything? Sure we like to eat local and drink local, but come on, is Texas wine up to snuff?

A panel of celebrated wine experts convened at the Austin Food & Wine Festival to showcase a flight of Texas wines and answer the question, “Are TX wines for real?” Texas wine writer and author of The Wineslinger Chronicles: Texas on the Vine, Dr. Russell Kane, assembled master sommelier, Devon Broglie, master sommelier, Craig Collins, executive wine editor of Food & Wine, Ray Isle and advanced sommelier, June Rodil to review wines that have won gold medals in recent competitions. Kane selected these globally experienced sommeliers because they have the perspective to critically evaluate Texas wines in an unbiased way.

Kane selected these globally experienced sommeliers because they have the perspective to critically evaluate Texas wines in an unbiased way, and he was quick to point out that the wines selected for the tasting — the wines that do well in Texas – are not the standard West Coast line-up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.

“Texas just ain’t Bordeaux and it sure as hell ain’t Burgundy.” We have a terroir that is more akin to Europe than northern France or the West Coast of the U.S. Our variable continental climate is similar to southern European areas like Rioja and Rhone. Our soil is also similar. Texas is has limestone bedrock just as Spain and France do. The grapes that grow well in southern France, Portugal, Spain and Italy also grow well in Texas.

“If you look at what is being planted, Tempranillo is out stripping Cabernet two-to-one,” explains Kane.

The panelists took turns describing the wines made with lesser known grape varieties.

First up was 2010 Duchman Family Winery Vermentino made with grapes grown in the Bingham Vineyards in the Texas High Plains. Broglie started the discussion with an adroit observation: “What stands out is its frickin’ delicious.” It has bright lemon, and honeysuckle scent, and has good balance of acidity and fruit with white peach flavors and slight bitterness of lemon zest on the pleasant finish.

Vermentino grows well in coastal areas of Italy and is not a mainstay of U.S. wine. Kane says, “This is an indication of Texas wine future. We will be the location where interesting grapes will like Vermentino reside.” That’s not without challenges Broglie, acknowledges. “These producers have taken some risks by making wine out of non-standard grape varieties.”

Isle adds, “It’s a financial risk. Trying to get people to try varietals that they don’t know is risky.” This wine retails for about $14.

Next up was 2010 McPherson Cellars Roussanne Reserve, also made with grapes grown in the Bingham Vineyards. “McPherson is one of the founding fathers of Texas wine,” Kane says. “They have been in business for more than 40 years and have started making wines with grape varieties that grow well in the Mediterranean. ” The Roussanne grape, which grows in Southern Rhone, can handle the Texas heat and late spring frost.

“I look for wines to smell and taste like where they came from and that is what you see with this Roussanne,” Collins says. Isle comments: “I’m blown away by this Roussanne. It is a big, full-bodied white with great acidity that elevates the citrus flavors. It is outrageously refreshing on a Sunday morning.” Collins suggests pairing the McPherson with foods that go well with acidity. “I would immediately go with a heavier grilled fish or a lighter fowl dish like quail.”

Rodil adds, “Shellfish like Nantucket scallops, monkfish and lobster has natural sweetness that goes well with this wine.” This wine retails for about $18.

The third wine tasted was 2009 Pedernales Cellars Tempranillo. Isle, a Texas native who now resides in New York, mused about grape selection. “When I wander around Texas it feels like Spain to me, and I wonder why I there isn’t Tempranillo growing here. What I love about the grape is that it has great concentration of flavor, but doesn’t have the massive body of Cabernet. It has finesse and elegance. The Pedernales Cellars Tempranillo has leathery flavors with bright red fruit, great acid and lingering flavor. Serve this wine slightly chilled. While I wouldn’t mistake this for Rioja, I would recognize it as a typical Tempranillo. It has a different balance than a Spanish wine.”

Collins weighs in on balance: “You know how the pills we swallow are round and not triangular? They are round and smooth so they go down easily. We don’t take triangle pills that are jabbing us on the corners saying ‘ooh that’s too much.’ That’s what balance is. It’s having good integration of alcohol, acid and tannin to make it smooth and round. This Tempranillo is really balanced.” This wine retails for about $30.

Next up was the Kiepersol Estates 2010 Stainless Syrah from Tyler, Texas. Kiepersol ages its Syrah in stainless and not oak barrels. “The tannin you get from this is from the seeds and skin, not from oak,” says Kane. This wine is an inky-dark, teeth-staining, fruit forward style similar to Australian Shiraz. Collins described it as “definitely a great food wine. It pairs well with what we do well in Texas: grilling and BBQ. There is a pepper spice to the wine that goes well with grilled meat. I’d serve this a little bit cool.

“I’m a fan of ice cubes in wine. I make ice cubes from rosé wine and drop them in my glass. That kind of ice doesn’t water down the wine.” The Stainless Syrah is a limited production with only 500 cases made and retails for about $32.

The fifth wine was 2009 Sandstone Cellars VII, made with Touriga Nacional grapes grown in Mason County Texas. The grape is grown in Spain and Portugal and is a primary blending grape in Port. “I requested we taste this wine because it’s a great example of doing grape varieties that show the terroir of Texas. It has big complexity,” says Broglie.

“It’s a beefy, animally wine. And there is a lot going on here. It has dark purple color, dark berry flavors and is very tannic. It’s damn good wine.” Don Pullam, Sandstone Cellars winemaker, was in the room to soak up adulation for his wine that retails for about $20.

The last selection was 2008 Haak Vineyards Madeira made with Blanc du Bois grapes from the coastal Galveston area. The grape was genetically started in Florida to take the heat, but has become Texas’ own grape as it is one of the most planted in the state. Rodil encouraged the audience to embrace desert wines saying this one in particular pairs well with the breakfast sweet rolls served at the session. “The Haak Madeira has nutty floral and caramel flavors with a lift of bright acidity and citrus that balances out the sweetness. Once you taste it, you’ll want another drink.”

“It has a distinct character of bourbon barrels with vanilla flavors,” Isle adds. Rodil suggests that “[o]nce you open the wine, store it in a temperature controlled area and it will keep a long time. It has 18.5 percent alcohol, so you only have to drink an ounce of it — or six if you are me.”  Haak Vineyards Madeira retails for about $40.

Wines from a state not known as a premier wine producing state priced in the $30 and $40 range seem pretty steep. The panelists defended the pricing. “Some Texas wines are a steal,” Isle says. “I’d put this McPherson up against any Roussanne for $18 and it will blow them away.”

“Once people start buying more wines from Texas, the prices will balance out,” Rodil suggests.

The panel was a veritable love fest for Texas wines. If they are so good, why don’t they get broader recognition? Kane chalks it up to relative scarcity of Texas wines being exported. “About 97% percent of what we produce is consumed locally. Texas is fifth largest wine producing state, the fourth largest consuming and the seventh largest grape grower. Clearly we don’t have enough wine produced to serve the out of state market, so it is hard to get people in other states and countries to evaluate our wine. That’s why there are not a lot of reviews in national magazines and that will continue until production grows.”

With a vote of confidence from wine experts, will you give Texas wines a try?

This story previously ran on CultureMap.

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Matt McGinnis

As a marketing strategist for Pen & Tell Us, Matt McGinnis provides marketing, branding and communications counsel to food and beverage as well as other clients globally. He is also an avid beverage enthusiast, chronicling his interests as a Food & Drink contributing writer for CultureMap, as the Food & Drink columnist for Austin Man Magazine, and as a blogger for What Are You Drinking?. He is passionate about the wine industry having previously worked at a winery in Oregon and in wine sales. He has served as Guest Host of Sommelier Cinema at the Alamo Drafthouse, and is a Certified Sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers. His writing has been recognized as a Top 10 Food Blog by the Austin Chronicle in 2013 and 2014, with a 2011 Texas Social Media Award from the Austin American-Statesman.

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