Wine Time

Wine of the Week: Texas Wine and the Final Frontier

Texas is a forbidding place to make fine wine. As I've learned in the three years that I've lived here, the Texas weather can change violently from one moment to the next. (Anyone who's ever been caught in a Texas downpour will surely agree that the Texas weather can put the fear of G-d in you.)

And while most people would brush off the notion of fine wine made in Texas because of its extremely hot and prolonged summers, it's not the heat but rather the capricious nature of Texas weather that works against the grape growers. More often than not, they'll tell you that an unexpected March freeze destroyed their crop after the first bud break. Grape growers, winemakers, and grape vines like consistency. They want the weather to change gradually, with an even progression and a balance of the seasons. In Texas, it's not in the heat... it's in the [rapid] motion that makes fine wine production so challenging.

But despite the formidable challenge, the wine industry continues to expand here. And Texas winemakers literally cannot quench Texans' thirst for Texan wines. As Houston-based wine writer Russ Kane -- the leading expert on Texas wine today and author of the leading Texas wine blog, VintageTexas -- recently told me, up to "30 percent of the wine bottled in Texas comes from grapes grown in California." (Unless the label reports that the wine was grown in a Texas AVA -- American Viticultural Area -- it could contain fruit sourced from outside the state; "Look for 'for sale in Texas only' or 'American' on the label," says Russ; these qualifiers indicate that the bottle may contain fruit not grown in Texas.) This remarkable figure reflects the growing demand for Texas wine.

Russ had joined me and Sean Beck, wine director at Back Street Cafè, where Russ guided us through a tasting of what he considers to be some of the best wines today in Texas. We couldn't have picked a better time to taste: Many producers have now released their 2010 vintage, one of the best in recent memory, and a number of wines we tasted were from last year's crop. "2010 was a big vintage," said Russ, "better than average and well balanced. Grape growers were harvesting fruit until the end of October. Unheard of in Texas."

"The fruit this year [2010] was magnificent!" wrote winemaker Raymond Haak owner of the Haak Winery in Santa Fe, Texas in an email. "Quantity was down but quality was up!"

The 2010 vegetative cycle (as it is called in winemaking parlance) was so good that many winemakers did not need to acidify (i.e., add acid) nor chaptalize (add sugar) in order to achieve the desired levels of acidity and alcohol respectively. Both are widespread, common practices in Texas, where the extreme climatic conditions drive winemakers to compensate for what Nature (with a capital N) won't provide.

So why does the wine industry in Texas -- perhaps the final frontier of fine wine -- continue to grow? Historically, Texas produced wine long before Thomas Jefferson planted his storied vineyards in Monticello. The Spanish missionaries were among the first to plant grapes and raise wine here: To this day, one of the most popular and historically significant grapes of Texas viticulture is called Black Spanish. And when the phylloxera plague of the 19th century decimated the vineyards of Europe, Texas horticulturist T.V. Munson was one of the researchers who helped to develop the phylloxera-resistant cultivars that ultimately resurrected the European wine industry.

Today, as a new generation of American wine enthusiasts and lovers becomes more and more sophisticated and demanding in its tastes and the locavore movement continues to gain ground, it only makes sense that the Texas wine industry will keep in step.

But in my mind, the reason is another: Whether or not you believe the Bronze Age fable of the Bible, there is no doubt that the miracle of wine was one of the first gifts that humankind received from a higher power. Wine and its consumption and ritual are deeply ingrained in our collective cultural psyche. Wine and humankind are inexorably linked: Wine cannot exist without humankind and humankind cannot exist without wine. After all, the first thing G-d commanded Noah to do after the flood was to plant a vine and make wine. Texas winemakers are like Noah and his new frontier...

In coming weeks, I'll post notes about some of the wines that Russ, Sean, and I tasted together. Do you have a favorite Texas wine? Please share your top picks in the comment section below.

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