An updated look at Texas wine, part I

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This is the first of three parts looking at the state of Texas wine. Today, an overview of current trends. On Thursday, a Texas wine of the week. On Friday, some of the most interesting wines that are currently available.

The good news is that the quality of Texas wine is better than it has ever been. The not so good news?  Some of the same problems that have cropped up over the past decade are still there — price/quality ratios that are out of whack, dirty and unclean wines, and poor fruit quality.

Having said that, I was impressed by many of the two dozen or so wineries at a tasting this week in Dallas, hosted by the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas and the state’s Texas wine program. A style seems to be emerging among the best producers — fruit enhanced, as opposed to the marked fruit forward style of Australia and New Zealand.

Also important: 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.

If I’m right, this is a crucial milestone. In the past, Texas winemakers have tried to make their wines taste like one or the other, which is not only poor marketing (why should anyone buy Texas wine that tastes like it came California?), but poor wine making. The weather and soil here, as well as the crop techniques required to deal with the weather and soil, are far different than Napa and Bordeaux. Yet, out of stubbornness or  inexperience, too many Texas winemakers insisted on copying Napa and Bordeaux, and their wines suffered for it. That some have stopped doing so means they’re learning, and the quality of the wine can only continue to improve.

This is not damning with faint praise. The Wine Curmudgeon has been writing about Texas wine for almost 20 years, and I have learned two important lessons. First, we’re too impatient. Not enough Texans understand that it takes decades and decades to build a wine industry. One just can’t plant vines, harvest them, make the wine, and pronounce success. After all, the French have been doing it for hundreds and hundreds of years, and they still make bad wine.

Second, we have not been dispassionate and critical enough about our wines. Too often, we have insisted that our wines are much better made than they are, and those of us who have said otherwise (including, but not limited to, the Wine Curmudgeon) have received the criticism. This doesn’t especially bother me, since it’s part of the job. But it doesn’t help the wine get better.

Both those attitudes are changing — slowly, in some cases, but changing. Increasingly, more winemakers are telling me they need to get better: Better in the vineyard and better in the wine room. They understand they need to plant grapes more suited to the climate and the soil, like syrah, sangiovese and viognier instead of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay. They know they need to improve their production techniques to handle these new grapes. Ten years ago, that never would have happened.

One of the best examples of this is Pat Brennan, the physician who owns Brennan Vineyards in Comanche, about two hours southwest of Fort Worth. His viognier (which I’ll write more about on Friday) is one of the best in the state, more than comparable to similarly-priced wines from California. Yet, when I tasted the first vintage, an overripe, high-alcohol jumble, I thought, “Here we go again.”

But Dr. Brennan learned from that vintage. He took advice from people who knew more than he did, not only about wine making but about wine marketing. His wines, dollar for dollar, are some of the best values in the state, and he takes less margin to build his brands. His barrel room, not coincidentally, is immaculate (my first impression when I saw it was that it was as clean as a surgery). And his wines got markedly better.

Hopefully, that’s a sign for the entire industry.

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