Drinking

In Defense of Texas Wines, Plus a Hill Country Wine Passport

Cheers to Texas wines.
Cheers to Texas wines. Photo Courtesy of Stone House Lifestyle
The local food movement has long regarded local wine as something not quite right. Craft beer and artisan spirits made by local producers are much revered, but local wine? Not really. One national food writer once told me that local wine always seemed too bougie.

Which has never made much sense. Local wine, including and especially Texas wine, is about as local as it gets. The grapes are grown here, and wine doesn’t require something else, like hops, that come from elsewhere. And one of the most distinctive elements in winemaking, land, is widely available too. It's why California wine doesn’t taste like French wine, and why Texas wine doesn’t taste like either. And why it’s not supposed to.

In all of this, Texas wine has thrived over the past couple of decades. It’s the fifth-biggest wine-producing state in the country, behind only the three West Coast states and New York. It’s widely available – in supermarkets, even — and there is wine in most price ranges. And, believe it or not, much of it is dry, just like wine from “real” places.

So what makes Texas wine distinctly local?

Grapes

It’s too hot and too dry for the grapes most people know — like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and pinot noir — to do as well here as they do elsewhere. Yes, they’re grown in Texas, but the focus has long been on grapes that thrive in this kind of climate. That means whites like viognier, a French grape, and the Italian vermentino. Reds include the Spanish tempranillo, the Italian sangiovese and even lesser-known French grapes like cinsault, carignan and mourvedre. These grapes grow in regions similar to Texas; Spain’s Rioja, famous for its tempranillo, looks a lot like the Hill Country (save for the odd castle scattered here and there).

Regions

Most of the grapes for Texas wine are grown in the High Plains in West Texas — as much as 80% in some years. The Hill Country is the second-most important region, as well as the center of Texas wine tourism. There are also grapes grown on the Gulf Coast, East Texas and around North Texas. In fact, Texas has seven American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. Those are specially designated areas for grape growing because they have something that makes them distinct from other parts of the country.

Terroir

Terroir is a French word that doesn’t have an exact English translation — the closest is “of the earth”; it refers to the soil and geography of the land where the grapes grow. And Texas differs greatly from the rest of the world. The High Plains is some 3,000 feet above sea level, one of only a handful of wine regions worldwide at altitude. As such, the combination of altitude, soil and even the angle of the sun on the grapevines does things to the grapes that can’t be duplicated elsewhere.

Tradition

The modern Texas wine business is not new; Llano Estacado and Fall Creek, the first post-Prohibition wineries, are almost 50 years old. There was a surge in wineries around 2000, and the number has continued to grow. Depending on who is doing the counting, there are more than 450 wineries throughout the state.

All of this background will get you ready for Texas Wine Month in October. Start making plans to hit the road to sip and see for yourself.

The Texas Hill Country Wineries is hosting a self-guided passport event that allows up to four winery tastings per day over the course of the month. The passport, which costs $120 per couple or $85 per person, also has some exclusive discounts on bottle purchases. Read the details and specifics on the website, which also includes a list of participating wineries. 
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Jeff Siegel, the Wine Curmudgeon, is a Dallas wine writer and critic who specializes in inexpensive wine that most of us drink. He is the author of The Wine Curmudgeon's Guide to Cheap Wine (Vintage Noir Media) and oversees the award-winning Wine Curmudgeon website. He has taught classes on wine, spirits and beer at El Centro College and Cordon Bleu.
Contact: Jeff Siegel