The first day of judging in the 29th annual event, which focuses on Texas but includes wines from other regional states, California, and the world, was not much fun. The quality of the wine was uneven at best, and many of the judges I talked to wondered if the 2011 competition, perhaps the best ever, had been a fluke.
Not to worry. The second day, when we judged best of class, reaffirmed my faith in the quality of Texas wine. In many ways, it was a landmark for the state ?s producers. The wines that earned top honors were distinctive and reflected Texas ? terroir, demonstrating that wineries here finally seem to have figured out that they should not make chardonnay and merlot, but wines better suited for our climate and soil.
I can ?t emphasize enough how disappointing the first day of the competition was. Regional chardonnay is often poorly made, but the ones we tasted were even more poorly made than usual ? green and stemmy and unripe. Someone entered a white zinfandel in a red wine category, which was either a cynical attempt to fool the judges or just plain dumb. Most of the sweet wines, usually a pleasure to taste, were candy bar sugary sweet, hardly the stuff great wine is made of.
All that changed on the second day. We judged seven best of class flights, and almost all of the wines were exceptional. That rarely happens; there are always several wines that raise eyebrows and make us wonder how they got a gold medal. There were 34 gold medals among the 515 entries, compared to 58 golds and 650 entries last year.
Best yet, six of the seven wines that won were made from a lesser known vinifera or hybrid ? exactly the grapes that should be grown here. And the seventh was a red blend developed for Texas, which was also good news. A few highlights:
? The winner in the the best white table wine from Texas category was a blanc du bois from Chisholm Trail in the Hill Country. It ?s not so much that a blanc du bois won, which was impressive enough, but that it beat two outstanding wines in the process, an albarino and a viogner (two other grapes that have made great strides in Texas).
? In the Texas red table wine category, Texas ? Llano Estacado won with its sangiovese blend, the 2008 Viviano. I ?ve always enjoyed this wine, which is an excellent example of how grapes that don ?t like it here, like cabernet sauvignon, can be blended with something like sangiovese, which does like it here, to make excellent wine.
? A syrah from Kiepersol in east Texas was astoundingly well made ? blended with a little viognier to produce an elegant, supple wine and well deserving of its gold medal.
? Presque Isle in Pennsylvania makes some fabulous dessert wines, and if you can find their Lake Erie Eskimo Kisses, made with vidal, buy it (despite the name). I actually drank the whole glass, which never happens at a judging.
? A big thanks to Sonya Terpening, our table captain who put up with us, and to my fellow judges, including Hunter Hammett of Dallas ? Pyramid Room, whose palate is matched by his wicked sense of humor; and my old pal Bill Rich of Glazer ?s, the distributor.
Finally, a note about something that has emerged as an issue in many regional competitions ? local wineries that use grapes from elsewhere (mostly California) and then enter them as local wines. That happened at Lone Star this year, but the competition czar, Michael Zerbach, said the rules will likely change for next year. He wants to add a special category for these wines ? call it local wines made with un-local grapes– so that they compete against similar wines and not in the Texas category. That ?s a terrific idea, and one I support wholeheartedly.
Photo from the 2010 Lone Star competition courtesy of Russ Kane at Vintage Texas