Did you know that Texas is the fifth largest producer of wine in the U.S.? Probably not. The Lone Star State is most recognized for its fantastic barbecue, mediocre pro football teams, and refreshing beer.
The state’s most prominent wine zone is Hill Country, set in the rolling terrain of central Texas. It’s inviting terrain that includes charming smaller towns like Fredericksburg, Johnson City, and Driftwood. Many wineries and vineyards dot the land along Highway 290 in the fertile agricultural stretch which parallels the Pedernales River.
Many like to equate the Texas wine scene, at least in terms of what’s grown and what wine types to expect, with Portugal or Spain. In terms of history, the Spanish played around with viticulture during the missionary days of about 400 years ago. But these wines are mainly for religious purposes and remained that way for centuries.
About the most interesting thing to happen with Texas wine in the interim involved Thomas Munson. The horticulturist famously helped battle Phylloxera through his work with Texas vines. Many credit his research and development — disease-resistant rootstock, specifically — for saving European wine as we know it. The modern-day commercial wine scene we’re able to enjoy today launched only as recently as the 1970s.
Many like to equate the Texas wine scene, at least in terms of what’s grown and what wine types to expect, with Portugal or Spain.
So what grapes grow among the multitudes of sorghum, pecans, and corn in the heart of Texas? Quite a few, to be sure. The warm weather and humidity make it impossible for certain varieties to grow, but many do quite well — Barbera, Cabernet, Malbec, Montepulciano, Sangiovese, Viognier, and Chenin Blanc, for example.
While there are plenty of vineyards in the Hill Country area, a lot of fruit is sourced from the High Plains region. This American Viticultural Area (AVA) resides to the west and north around Lubbock and is a massive 8,000,000 square acres in size. Everything is, in fact, bigger in Texas. It’s also set in some lifted terrain, as the name suggests, with many vineyards planted between 3,000-4,000 feet above sea level. It’s the second largest of eight Texas AVAs.
In Hill Country, one can find a bevy of agreeable bigger red blends and some easy-drinking whites like Trebbiano. At first, producers were all-hands-on-deck with intense wines that could go toe-to-toe with red meat. Now, there are more and more labels looking to dial things back some, opting for balance and brightness over sheer might.
If you go, and you should, Austin is a great spot to call headquarters. The sprawling college town calls itself the “live music capital of the world” and is home to legendary venues like Broken Spoke and the Continental Room. You can tour wineries by day and enjoy Austin’s vibrant nightlife after a bowl of Texas Chili Parlor’s finest. And when you fail to cross every label off of your list, you can rely on the city’s wine shops and restaurants to fill in some gaps.
There are also accommodations within wine country if you want something more pastoral. Or, stay at an actual winery, at places like Kiepersol or Fall Creek Vineyards. Should you tour Hill Country, here are some wineries worth seeking out:
The folks at William Chris were growers for decades long before they started the winery. That means they understand the vital farming side of winemaking and express their grapes through distinctive blends, a nice Cinsault, and even some pet-nat. Note that reservations are required.
Bold Texas wines are fine, but sometimes you need some elegance. Southold is spearheading a movement toward more refined, often more experimental wines. And the label is up to some fun projects, like a sparkling Lagrein, Touriga Nacional, and a skin-fermented Picpoul Blanc (a lesser-known Rhone variety). Farm visits are reservation-only.
While a bit off the grid, it’s worth scheduling an appointment at Robert Clay. The label is working deftly in the cellar with everything from Chardonnay and Mourvedre to Tannat and Syrah. The fruit is fantastic and they sell a fair bit, so look for the name on other regional labels as well.
Duchman has been a reliable source of good Texas wine since launching in 2004. The tasting room is welcoming and open to the public, where you’ll find quality pours of Viognier, Vermentino, Sangiovese, and Montepulciano. The bigger Italian reds are great alongside fare from the countless barbecue joints in the area.
Wine tasting can be as much about context. Signor offers a gorgeous backdrop for tasting, a rustic escape peppered with oak trees, vineyard rows, and farm buildings. Try the vineyard tour to get a taste of the label’s work, and look out for unique rosés and well-built reds.
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