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."
Texas winemakers and grape growers are slowly moving away from the traditional European varietals, like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, in favor of lesser known grapes that are better suited to the state's hot, dry climate.
The favorites of the moment are viognier, a white grape from the south of France, which several wineries have turned into an attractive alternative to chardonnay, and the Spanish tempranillo, which has produced some fine wines in limited use. I'm not as sold on tempranillo as many others in Texas are, for it can be a difficult grape to work with in the winery and it may have ripening problems in the state.
All of which is a roundabout way to get to the Don Gabriel. Zinfandel is a grape that has been overlooked in Texas, which is kind of surprising. It's a warm climate varietal that has enjoyed great success in California, and we know much more about growing it in this country than we do tempranillo.
Because, based on the Don Gabriel ($13, sample), we should be growing more of it in Texas. Winemaker Gabe Parker makes some very interesting wines, and I've even had a pinot noir blend (unheard of in Texas) that was quite pleasant. The Don Gabriel is a fruity — yes, the traditional blueberry — with low alcohol and black pepper. It's not as jammy as California zinfandel, but that's not necessarily a problem. Unfortunately, the Don Gabriel doesn't have retail distribution, but it is available through the winery. Pair this with fall barbecue and tomato sauces.
This is DrinkLocalWine.com's third annual Regional Wine Week, in which we highlight regional wine throughout the United States. Who would have thought, when Dave McIntyre and I came up with the idea 3 1/2 years ago, that it would have led to DLW, wine week, and our annual conferences?
The funny thing, as passionate as I am about local wine? I'm still surprised that so many other people care as much as they do about regional wine. During my time at the State Fair of Texas over the past couple of weeks, the crowds were good, lively and asked intelligent questions. And we got the usual questions from people about how to start a winery or a vineyard.
What is even more encouraging is that the next generation of wine professionals is so enthusiastic about regional wine. Just two examples from the Fair: Hunter Hammett, the 30-something sommelier at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas, told how he served Texas viognier to a group of French guests — and how much they enjoyed the wine. Devon Broglie, the equally youngish wine buyer for Whole Foods in Texas and the Southwest, said that regional wine sales have flourished at Whole Foods during recession, despite the slowdown in the rest of the wine business.
There is more demand and more interest in regional wine than ever before. This week on the blog, I'll highlight regional wine — the good and the bad, because nothing gets better unless you understand what the obstacles are.