For the second time in four years, Pedernales Cellars’s Viognier won Top Texas Wine at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Uncorked! Competition. The 2012 vintage won first, in 2013 (which was also the first time it had ever been entered), and the 2014 vintage earned the same honors at the end of 2015. (The wines are judged a few months before the rodeo opens.)
Pedernales Cellars the winery is located in Stonewall, Texas, while the vineyard is north of Fredericksburg. We caught up with co-owner and marketing director Julie Kuhlken (actually, Dr. Julie Kuhlken, even though she was too modest to say so) while she was in town to receive her award, which takes the form of a big, embossed saddle. (This is Texas, you know.)
It was Kuhlken’s parents who planted a vineyard on the property after careful research. Kuhlken says the research really paid off. “They located it in Bell Mountain AVA [American Viticultural Area], which is the oldest in Texas. They planted originally just four acres. We now have 20 acres.”
Interestingly, wine wasn’t on her parents’ minds. “They just wanted to grow grapes,” she said. “They wanted to live on the land. It was in 2006 that my brother, husband and I formed Pedernales Cellars. We bought a separate property for the winery, because even then it was obvious that [Highway] 290 was going to become a corridor for wine tasting and tourism.”
The Texas climate is notoriously finicky for growing grapes, and Kuhlken says it’s Pedernales's biggest challenge. “California has much more consistent weather than we have in Texas,” said Kuhlken. “We have no idea from year to year what the weather is going to be like. This year, for example, it’s been an incredibly warm winter, so the plants were already assuming it was spring in February. We also have hail, which is common during the transition seasons.”
Texas vineyards must select varietals that are hardy enough to survive the heat and unpredictable weather patterns. Half of Pedernales’s grapes are Tempranillo, which was first cultivated in Spain. “It just thrives in Texas,” explained Kuhlken. “It has no problem with the heat. It deals with the shorter growing season. In Texas, we harvest in August, so it’s an earlier harvest than those northern-European/Californian growing conditions. Tempranillo does very well with that. It has a flavor profile that also goes very nice with Texas food.” Pedernales Tempranillo Reserve won a Grand Gold award at the San Francisco International Wine Competition in 2013.
Pedernales also grows Mourvèdre, Grenache and some Portuguese varietals like Touriga Nacional and Tinta Amarela that are used for making port. “Portuguese varietals are very finicky,” admitted Kuhlken, “but they make great wine.”
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The grapes in Pedernales's award-winning Viognier come from an area called the High Plains that encompasses most of the Texas panhandle. “It’s a separate growing area with cooler nights, which is better for white grapes,” said Kuhlken. “We bring the grapes back and then make the wine in the Hill Country.”
It was the 2012 vintage of the Viognier that first won the Rodeo Uncorked! Competition. Nothing was produced in 2013 because of freezes that ruined the harvest, so the 2014 vintage that won this year is actually consecutive to the 2012.
It’s been a slow, hard climb, but Texas wines are worth taking heed of. “I think anyone who tried Texas wine over five years ago and said, ‘Oh, I don’t like Texas wine,” needs to try it again. There have been enormous changes over the past five years. Now, there’s a lot of good options, particularly if you look at social media to get advice on where to go and try Texas wine.”
Pedernales Cellars is open 362 days a year to those who want to visit and try some of the best wines Texas has to offer. It’s only closed on Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s. “It’s best to come midweek,” says Kuhlken. “Saturday is the worst day. January is good because it’s a really slow period for us. June is a very beautiful time to come because the vines are starting to come out and you can see the clusters. The other good month is September.” Visit the tasting room at 2916 Upper Albert in Stonewall, Texas.