Being the fifth largest wine grape and wine producing state in the U.S. might be worth boasting about, but Texas is not a state that takes fifth place lightly.
With 275 bonded wineries producing 3 billion gallons annually and $1.8 billion in sales, Texas’s wine industry is still expanding. But both climate and sales marketing have made it a struggle to compete with California, Oregon, and other states for bragging rights.
“Our state’s top vignerons are among the bravest, most intrepid and most tortured farmers on the planet,” Houston Chronicle wine columnist Dale Robertson wrote last month. “Late freezes, hailstorms and drought wreak constant havoc.”
In fact, a spring freeze in 2013 killed off most of the grapes in the High Plains appellation vineyards, leaving some growers with no grapes at all.
While drought is a disaster for most crops, grapes make the best wines if they are stressed from lack of water. Texas growers have shied away from Bordeaux varietals in favor of more hot weather grapes like tempranillo and shiraz.
However, better grapes mean fewer grapes, so many wineries are forced to source grapes from California to fill their bottles.
By federal law, if a wine has 75 percent or more of its contents from out-of-state grapes, it must be labeled “For Sale in Texas Only,” with no further designation. So, wines with 74 percent California juice may be labeled Texas wines. (The state of Texas has no such laws of its own.)
“Quality has increased significantly but not the number of wineries making that quality,” said Jessica Dupuy, Austin-based wine writer for Texas Monthly Magazine.
“The best, like McPherson Cellars, Duchman Family Winery and Pedernales Cellars are strictly focusing on Texas fruit. But there isn’t enough acreage available for them to produce as much wine as they could sell.”
Most of their wines are sold on winery premises, and better restaurants can’t get the best wines, and the wines they do get are very expensive for most guests, who can buy excellent Spanish, Rhone or Italian wines for less.
During a week spent in Austin, Dallas and Houston, I sought to drink Texas wines exclusively but found only a handful on restaurant lists.
Only the Four Seasons Hotels chain, with branches in those three cities, has made a real commitment to carrying Texas wines. The chain’s resort in Irving features 12 on a separate page of the wine list.
According to the resort’s sommelier, James Tidwell, “The problem is distribution. I ask to put a wine on our list and I’m told they sold out everything at the winery.”
Wine directors at other top restaurants I visited told me that there really wasn’t enough interest among guests to bother stocking Texas bottlings.
Still, I tasted as many as I could, as recommended by the restaurant sommeliers and found many to be very fine wines indeed. Given the amount of sun and heat the grapes receive, some wines’ alcohol levels were very high.
At the new restaurant Stampede 66 in Dallas, I very much enjoyed a 2008 Llano Estacado 1836 Blend. (“1836” refers to The Battle of San Jacinto when Sam Houston beat the Mexican Army in a 30-minute battle.)
The winery began in Lubbock in 1976 and is now the largest selling premium winery in the state. A complex blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petite verdot, sangiovese and malbec, sourced from Mont Sec vineyard in the Chihuahuan Desert, it is a big, bold wine of a kind you’d expect from a Texas vineyard, full of sunny fruit and loosening tannins.
At Fearing’s restaurant in the Dallas Ritz-Carlton Hotel, I was delighted by a 2011 Becker Vineyards Moscato, a varietal often made in a sweet style but here pleasingly dry with the characteristic floral aromatics of the muscat canelli grape.
I also tasted a 2010 Inwood Estates Vineyards Tempranillo-Cabernet, at 14.5 percent alcohol. The wine showed that the tempranillo has a good future in Texas all on its own. However though the wine was only three years old, I sensed a bit of oxidation. I’d drink this today but not a year from now.
The wine I liked most that week was a 2010 Duchman Family Vineyards Vermentino, a late-ripening varietal most associated with Italy’s Liguria and Sardinia. It was a clean, well-made wine -- no hint of oxidation here -- tangy with acid, a faint sweet undertone and far better than a lot of mass-produced Italian vermentinos I’ve tried.
The same winery’s 2010 Sangiovese, with an admirably balanced 13.5 percent alcohol, was not complex but deliciously fruity, suggesting a terroir well adapted to the Texas climate, in this case Driftwood situated in the Texas High Plains.
I hesitate to give prices on these wines because they are largely only available at the wineries themselves. But Texas has its own wine tourism, so you can taste at wineries set in some of the prettiest countryside north of the Rio Grande.
(Information and maps for self-guided tours of 22 Texas Hill Country wineries are available through www.texaswinetrail.com)
(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Farah Nayeri in Venice and Jeremy Gerard on theater.