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Wine Tasting in Texas Hill Country

The first time I was even aware that wine was made in Texas, I was in the Austin airport at Vino Volo searching for a flight of wine to enjoy, fresh off my audition for the doctoral program at the University of Texas. Seeing a Texas wine flight, I couldn't help but scoff. Texas wine? In THESE temperatures?

How wrong I was. That day, at the encouragement of my server, I sampled three excellent Texas wines, and when I moved to Austin, I made several trips about 90 minutes west of Austin to the home of Texas' most concentrated collection of wineries, all along Highway 290 between Johnson City and Fredericksburg. Seems Texas is the fifth-largest state producer of winemaking grapes in the country and one of the oldest, with 80ish percent of the grapes grown in the Texas High Plains AVA in the panhandle around Amarillo. The warm, arid climate with high winds and similar soils draws comparisons to winemaking regions in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Australia, and Spanish and Italian varietals, as well as French varietals from the Rhône, all flourish here.

It shouldn't be surprising that the center of winemaking in Texas (and those who visit) is outside the state's most popular destination city––Austin. Texas Hill Country, west of Austin, is a picturesque rolling landscape dry as a bone in March but lush with Texas prairie grasses and wildflowers in the late spring and summer, and dotted with massive old growth oak trees. Most of the wineries in the area source the majority of their fruit from the High Plains, but many also have on-site vineyards on their Hill Country estates, particularly now that the High Plains AVA has been afflicted by drifting herbicides that affect the fruit. Several wineries also source cheaper fruit from California or New Mexico, though to be labeled with "Texas," a wine needs to be 85 percent or more Texas fruit, and of course to be labeled with an AVA designation, all the fruit must come from that AVA.

On my "Spring Break Round 1" trip, the result of an unexpected week off a mere two weeks before "Spring Break Round 2," my goal was to surround myself with people, places, and things that make me happy, so Austin was high on the list of places to spend my time, especially after a woefully brief visit a few months back that gave me but a brief taste of one of my favorite cities in the country.

I made my way west of Austin in the early afternoon, significantly later than expected due to a long Zoom meeting, and grumpily fought the always ridiculous traffic on Highway 290 out of the southwest side of the city. When I finally reached Johnson City, the east end of the Texas Hill Country "Wine Trail," I was well past 2pm, but faithfully trucked out into the cowboy country of central Texas to the first stop on my list––Lewis Wines.

It's unclear to me why I'd never visited Lewis before––it's been around for a good amount of time with a beautiful tasting room on the eastern stretch of 290, and makes highly acclaimed Texas wines that are reasonably priced. Back off the highway a bit, the building and its beautiful open-air patio is encircled by estate vines, which the entire winemaking staff was out pruning. Doug Lewis worked at one of the first and biggest Hill Country wineries, Pedernales Cellars, in the late aughts and started experimenting with leftover fruit and cuttings from their harvests. Eventually he and his winemaking partner Dustin purchased some land and planted vines, and developed the estate with the goal of producing wine from exclusively Texas fruit.

Just beyond Lewis was a brand-new tasting room still breaking ground on their landscape and vineyard, evidence of the absolute boom of wineries along Highway 290 in the few years since I left. I was also surprised to see that the tasting fee at Lewis was $25 for four pours, a price point I’d expect to see in far more established wine regions (though I suppose you're lucky to find a $50 tasting in Napa or Sonoma these days!). Progress, I suppose. In any event, I was the only one in the tasting room after a family wrapping up their visit stepped out, so I got to have a good conversation with Jana, my Sherpa in my Lewis Wines journey.

Texas’ red grapes seem to get the lion’s share of attention these days, so it didn’t surprise me that the only non-red wine I’d taste at Lewis was a rosé. Texas rosé is generally really interesting, structured, and fuller in body, using the regional rockstar red grapes to produce refreshing but complex wines that are perfect for a hot Texas afternoon but also pair brilliantly with food. Round Mountain, a sub-region of the Hill Country AVA just north and east of the Highway 290 hotspots, has been seeing a wealth of new plantings in recent years, and for this Round Mountain Rosé, Lewis uses a field blend of red grapes that flourish in the dry Texas heat––tempranillo, tannat, and Touriga Nacional, a Portuguese grape that’s been getting a lot of attention in Texas of late.

Tempranillo, the Spanish grape responsible for much of the red wine production in Rioja, has been particularly successful in the arid, warm Texas climate, and it shows in the area’s tasting rooms. Tempranillo from some of Hill Country’s older vineyards outside of Mason, a cooler region a good distance northwest of Fredericksburg, formed 100 percent of this silky red blend. A lovely wine, though not particularly interesting compared to some other Texas tempranillos I’ve sampled.

From the same area, their blend called “The Hickory” combines about two-thirds lively Touriga and one-third tempranillo. Jana explained that there’s a push to divide the Hill Country AVA into several smaller AVAs with more discrete soils and climates, and the particularities of the soil in the vineyards from which the source the grapes from this wine would create a new AVA called “Hickory.” Now we were talking––experiencing the brilliant, red fruit-driven Touriga-dominant wine was a pleasure, and I selected a glass of this wine to pair with my picnic lunch!

The last selection came from one of Lewis’ first vintages. The 2012 Reserve blend from Lewis’ vineyard in Round Mountain blended about 50-50 tempranillo and Portuguese grapes, containing the same high-toned red fruit I’d expect from Texas tempranillo but with the obvious depth and settled tannins you’d expect from the age. More interesting was the oak profile––Texas wineries in their fledgling state tended to opt for cheaper oak than French for their early vintages, and this Reserve had a healthy chocolatey profile owing to its aging in Russian oak. It’s more aggressive than French oak, which can be a bit unwelcome, but Lewis managed to maintain a lovely balance.

After the tasting, I collected a business card from Jana and strolled out with my glass of Touriga to a table under the oak trees to nosh on my self-made picnic of cheese and charcuterie. Central Market, the greatest grocery store of all time, provided the provisions––I used to stroll the aisles of Central Market with wide eyes as a foodie resident of Austin, regularly dropping far too much money on their breathtaking selection of gourmet items. You can imagine that I was thrilled to return; I found myself spending nearly two hours walking down memory lane (aisle?) and collecting every goodie for my plate I could fathom. A second circuit around the store was necessary to pare down my selections!

Particularly delicious was the meat for the day––a Texas Iberico lomo (pork loin) cured in wild prickly pear from the deserts of west Texas, which paired gloriously with Central Market’s black pepper and prosciutto baguette and a soft-rinded cheese from Marin County in California. And, of course, the food friendly Touriga blend brought everything together. Despite the Dixie plate lifted from my friend Rachel's pantry, a triumph of a charcuterie picnic in the shade of the oaks.

My second visit was to Ab Astris, a relative newcomer along Highway 290, described by the owners as a “family-run boutique winery.” Proprietors Erin and Tony Smith hired their daughter’s hubby, Mike Nelson, a Texan with experience in the California wine scene, to work as winemaker. Tucked away a few miles off 290 behind President Lyndon Johnson’s old homestead (now a state park), the estate boasts a spacious farmstead-style tasting room flanked by picnic tables under old growth oaks and guarded sleepily by the sweet old winery dog, Buddy.

Behind each constellation-studded label is an elegant wine made with all Texas fruit, most from the High Plains but some from the new plantings on the estate. Their only all-estate wine was a clairette blanche with ripe tropical fruit and lemony acidity, which was a refreshing, but ultimately forgettable wine. More compelling was their “Stello” white blend––with a core of Roussanne and Marsanne balanced by bright clairette and picpoul, the wine had an appealing depth and aromatic quality that unfolded in layers. The winemaker calls this “a roller coaster.”

Connoisseurs of Napa or Bordeaux cabernet sauvignon might not recognize a Texas cab. The elevation and cooling wind of the Texas High Plains gives Texas cabernet a high-toned mouthfeel singing with red berries and ebullient acidity rather than the full body, purple fruit, and cassis that cab from the classic regions display. I love Texas cabernet––French winemaker Ben Calais, an institution in Texas wine, gave me a profound appreciation for the potential of Bordeaux varietals in the High Plains. Ab Astris’ permutation was no exception. I also was an appendage to a party from Houston who were members of Ab Astris’ wine club, so I got an interloper’s extra pour of a new bottling of a cab/tempranillo blend, with a lovely spice and black pepper finish. The single-varietal and single-vineyard tempranillo from the famous Newsome Vineyard in the High Plains was also stellar with an alluring and almost heady savory quality of eucalyptus and cardamom. Lovers of Rioja or even pinot noir would adore Texas tempranillos.

Last in the lineup was Ab Astris’ “claim to fame,” and a wine that I’d heard about regularly when researching new wineries to visit along Highway 290. Tannat, originally from southwest France, is a grape that has become particularly famous in Uruguay, and tends to be inky purple and massively bodied in that country, but as with many traditionally robust reds in the Texas High Plains, this was more balanced, but still boasted essences of dried purple fruit and chocolate along with a mouthwatering acidity. Certainly a wine of which Ab Astris can be proud.

Given my late start, I was running out of time to enjoy a third tasting before the clock struck six and the last of the wineries closed but managed to sneak in at the last second to one of the most exciting new wineries in Texas, Adega Vinho. With a goal of focusing on Portuguese grapes, which winemakers have found grow beautifully in Texas Hill Country, Adega opened to serious acclaim just a few years ago. A hyper-modern tasting room that you could confuse for an art gallery sits a few miles south of 290 with a lovely patio amid the oaks. The congenial manager of the tasting room was kind enough to pour four reds for me at the last minute, two of which were comprised entirely of my favorite grape in Texas––mourvèdre.

Pinot noir (caviar, midsize car, you’re a star!) is my absolute favorite grape––winemakers in Texas view single-varietal mourvèdre, normally a blending grape with Rhône varietals, as Texas’ answer to pinot. It’s little wonder, then, that Texas mourvèdre is so attractive to me. Silky smooth and medium in body, with slightly more velvety jammy notes than pinot, it just soars on the palate. Both of these examples of the grape came from the estate––the first was a reserve that saw nearly two years in oak, giving the wine a hint of smoky vanilla balanced by high-toned cherry and raspberry notes. The second was more my taste, with less oak, a lighter body, and herbaceous aromatics. After an afternoon in Hill Country without a mourvèdre, I was thrilled to sample two!

Tempranillo and merlot form the blend in their High Plains Cuvée Carinho, again with the expected lighter body and brilliant red fruit divergent from Texas’ Napa and Bordeaux counterparts. Raspberry and lush cherry define the palate, with a hint of herbaceous green pepper you’d expect from merlot. Surprisingly for a Mourvèdre enthusiast, this was easily my favorite wine from Adega in a slate of very impressive reds.

Their estate tempranillo was a bit heavier in style than the examples from Lewis and Ad Astris, likely owing to its aging in American oak, which can impart a chocolatey, leathery mouthfeel, as well as its presence in a warmer, wetter climate than the High Plains. More purple fruit-driven than either of the other tempranillos I tasted that day and the most robust of the Adega wines, but still silky-smooth like I’d expect from Texas.

As I left Adgea a mere 30 minutes after my arrival, I caught the burnt orange Texas sunset to the west, the oaks casting long shadows across the dry fields between the tasting room and vineyards. Leaving Hill Country and catching a glimpse of the sunset in the side-view mirror, I felt the sweet melancholy of nostalgia for the Austin area wash over me. Or maybe it was the wine. In either event, an exceptionally enjoyable day in one of my favorite places!

I think Texas wine could be viewed as a “green eggs and ham” sort of situation. Some may scoff, as I did seven years ago, at the idea that Texas wines could be a serviceable competitor to the “established” wine regions of the United States. The same could be said for many up-and-coming wine regions as the climate changes that may surprise some––the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York, between corporate warehouses in Los Angeles County, and even the very northern reaches of Michigan near Traverse City! I even remember a wine of all Iowa fruit back when I was working at a wine shop in the Amana Colonies south of Cedar Rapids of which I was quite fond and brought home regularly. While Texas may be much more established than these areas, the kernel of the message still holds––“Try them, try them, and you’ll see.” Granted, not all wines are good, or even serviceable, but you can find delicious, innovative production in places you’d never expect.

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