By Jeff Siegel
There are surprises everywhere when it comes to Texas wine. First, it’s the fifth largest wine-producing state in the country. Second, there there are 177 wineries, three times as many as at the beginning of the decade. Third, the Hill Country, according to a Orbitz.com, is the second-fastest growing wine destination in the United States, second only to Napa Valley.
These are impressive numbers for an industry that is only three decades old. By comparison, the modern California wine business dates to the end of World War II, and the French have been making wine for 500 years. But what’s even more impressive is that the quality of Texas wine has improved markedly this decade, as better techniques in the vineyard have been complemented by better educated and more skilled winemakers.
The biggest change? That Texas winemakers and growers have stopped beating their head against the wall to produce cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay because that’s what California and France produce. Yes, it’s still produced here, with varying degrees of success, but more and more winemakers have learned that they can produce terrific wine with Italian, Spanish and Mediterranean varietals. They also understand that those grapes are the future of the Texas industry, which makes perfect sense. The Texas climate and soil, after all, resembles Italy, Spain and the Mediterranean much more than it does Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa.
Texas winemakers have had success with varietal and blended wines made from grenache, syrah, mourvedre, roussanne, chenin blanc, and black Spanish (a native hybrid that loves Texas’ heat and humidity). The biggest successes, though, have come with sangiovese and viognier, which have produced wines in recent vintages that are as good, if not better, than similar efforts from California.
Stylistically, these wines are fruit enhanced (as opposed to the marked fruit forward style of Australia and New Zealand). The best Texas winemakers seem to have found a niche somewhere between California and France. Their wines incorporate bright fruit, but retain a French sensibility and balance, so that the acid and alcohol don't overwhelm the wine.
That the industry realized it needed to change is also significant. The biggest problem with Texas wine in the past 20 years was always quality, but attitude. Not enough Texans in the wine business understand that it takes decades and decades to build an industry. They expected to plant vines, harvest them, make wine, and bask in the afterglow of success. But wine doesn’t work that way. In addition, Texans have not been dispassionate and critical enough about their wines. Too often, they insisted that the wines were much better than they were. But that is changing -- slowly, in some cases, but changing.
And the difference has been better wine.
Where to find information about Texas wine and the Texas wine industry:
• Go Texan: The official state site, featuring appellations, maps and listings for retailers and restaurants that sell Texas wine.
• Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association: Trade group for Texas winemakers and vineyard owners that includes a list of wine festivals, Texas wineries and wine regions, and history.
• Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute: Wine industry statistics and harvest reports.
• Wine Society of Texas: Formed to promote wine knowledge and education, especially about Texas wine.
• Wine and Food Foundation of Texas: Focuses on education, including scholarships, event sponsorship.
• Texas Sommelier Association: Holds the annual Texas Sommelier Competition, the first and only event of its kind in the country.