The conventional wisdom is that European-style wine grapes like cabernet savignon and merlot, called vinifera, can't be grown in East Texas. The climate is too humid, for one, and the area is a prime breeding ground for Pierce's Disease, which is about as bad as grape diseases get.
So what is Kiepersol Estates, located south of Tyler, doing in East Texas? And how does it manage to make some of the state's top wines?
"We still don't know the answers exactly, but we're getting the right outcome," says Pierre de Wet, a South African who immigrated to the U.S. in 1984, planted grapes in 1998, and produced its first vintage in 2001. "It has been a lot of trial and error."
More, after the jump:
Whit Meyers, who works for Kiepersol's Texas distributor, laughed when I told him that. He said he had thought the same thing when his company picked up Kiepersol. So he drove the 100 miles to the winery to look for himself. Sure enough, there were 60 acres of European-style grapes. His next mission? Drive Dallas-area wine writers to Kiepersol (which is part of a family business that includes a residential development, bed and breakfast, restaurant, and music venue) so that we could see the grapes.
Which Meyers did with me. At the winery, we piled into a golf cart with de Wet and his daughter, Marnelle de Wet Durrette, who makes the wine, and drove through the vineyard. Ever the skeptic, I got out and tasted the grapes when we came across a new variety. Yep, that was vinifera. And so was that. And even that one. Durrett thought my jumping in and out of the cart to taste was quite cute.
Still, de Wet and Durrett are quite patient with the skeptics, because they understand why we are skeptical. And they have had problems with Pierce's, which strips all the leaves off of the vine. Every once a while, we saw a sad-looking stick poking out of the ground, a vine that had been decimated by the disease.
But that was the exception. Most of the vines looked healthy, and the fruit I tasted was top notch. The de Wets use several techniques to keep the pests and diseases away, from running frost fans in the summer to cool the vineyard and lower the humidity to supplementing with a variety of nutrients and minerals. de Wet, who was a farmer long before he was a grape grower, says it's all about building the grapes' immune system. Another nifty trick: Combing the grape bunches, which increases the space between the grapes and which seems to help prevent mold and mildew from developing.
These efforts have translated into quality, if sometimes inconsistent, wines. One of Kiepersol's earliest advocates was sommelier Drew Hendricks, who saw something when the rest of us were making jokes. I have always liked the syrah, which isn't as fruity as those from California and Australia and shows what Texas syrah can be -- dark, interesting, and more French in style. My favorite this time was the 2009 semillon ($14, sample), which was lean and fresh with a touch of melon fruit.
So, yes, they really do grow vinifera in East Texas.