Badass Beverage: Texas Wine

Our Badass Sommelier heads south to investigate some of the best Lone Star wines. 

So. America is big. I know. Bear with me.

America is big. Really big. And it has a really diverse range of terrains and climates. A lot of these climates are the exact kind of conditions where wine grapes can thrive. So many, in fact, that every state in the union makes wine. Every state. Even Hawaii. Even Utah.

Obviously some states make better wines than others. That’s why we’re more familiar with wine from California than, say, Michigan. But California is by no means the last word in American wine. Oregon Pinot Noir is very well regarded, and with good reason. Washington and New York both offer a variety of great wines, and are only growing in quality and popularity.

But I find the most interesting things are happening in Texas.

Even though Texas is seeing the most exciting growth in the country, its history with wine is not new. Texas was one of the first states in the country to develop wines, predating California by more than a century. Before there was a country, before there was really a Texas, there was Texas wine.

Blame the Spanish.

We’re on a Mission from God.

The conquistadors were first, with their amazing hats.

Seriously the best hats.

The conquistadors brought the missionaries, and the missionaries brought Jesus. And Jesus was a pro-booze dude, so the missionaries needed wine.

Booze existed in the New World before the Europeans, and the Americas have plenty of native species of grape, but the fermentation of grape wasn’t really a thing until the Spanish showed up. In the mid-1600s, Franciscan monks made communal wine out of the appropriately named Mission grape. A sturdy varietal originally from Spain, Mission grows readily in varied climates, and its prominence was instrumental in the development of wine in Texas, and later in California. Unfortunately, Mission wine is kind of shitty.

As Texas was gradually settled, more and more people looked for better quality wine. Experiments with native grapes proved mostly fruitless (see what I did there?), and the European vitis vinifera was known to be too difficult to grow in America’s harsher climates. But when our old friend phylloxera struck, it was a Texan who struck back.

How T.V. Saved the World.

American wines were just starting to come into their own when the phylloxera blight swept through Europe in the 1850s. It wasn’t the climate that was making it difficult for winemakers to cultivate vitis vinifera, it was the sap-sucking little aphid native to the country. Phylloxera may have evolved alongside American vines, which are resistant to the pest, but it had a field day once it got to Europe.

Enter our hero, Thomas Volney Munson. A prominent horticulturist and botanist, Munson’s passion was for viticulture. In particular he was instrumental in the proliferation of the hybrids, bred from European and American grapes, that were early attempts at making quality wine in America.

When the phylloxera pest was finally discovered as the cause of the European blight, Munson developed a theory for how to deal with it. He had dozens of vinifera vines shipped to him, and he started cutting. He eventually discovered that he could graft the desirable European vines onto resistant American rootstock and keep the pest at bay. Mustang, a grape native to Munson’s home in Texas, eventually proved to be the best match for most species of vinifera, and is still used worldwide to protect vineyards.

Things Get Worse Before They Get Better.

With the threat of phylloxera quelled, Texas followed the rest of the world in an all too brief upswing in wine production. Things were looking up. But with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution things got a little, well, stupid.

Prohibition fucked us up a bit, as a country. It made us all a bit crazy*. But even after repeal, the Texas wine industry had difficulties. It wasn’t until the 1950s that things began to change for the better. Slowly but surely, wine was being produced again. Over the next thirty years the American wine boom saw the Texas wine industry try to emulate the success of California. Big oaky Cabernet Sauvignons and buttery Chardonnays were the rule of the day, but these was never a style of wine suited to Texas.

Recent history has proven this, and that’s where things start to get really interesting.

Texas offers a lot in terms of terroir. Sweet fortified wines are produced in the south, and these can be quite good. The southeast, though usually too humid for vinifera, has had some luck with native grapes. And the Texas Hill Country, to the west of Austin, is home to some of the best Texas has to offer.

Though the Texas Hill Country AVA** is massive (some 9,000,000 acres, making it the second largest AVA in the country), a mere 800 acres are under vine. The primary grapes grown here are Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, and the wines made from them are honest, if a bit simple. But more exciting things are being done in this appellation.

The modern Texan winemaking philosophy can be neatly summed up as “shit, we can do that.” Winemakers in the Texas Hill Country are growing Viognier, a difficult white grape from France’s Rhone Valley. And as surprising as this was to find, it was nothing compared to finding Texan Sangiovese and Tempranillo sitting on a shelf in a supermarket in Austin at 10:00 in the morning on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Sangiovese is the most important grape in Tuscany, and is the basis for Chianti and Brunello wines. Tempranillo is Spain’s major red varietal, used primarily in Rioja. The two grapes have proven nearly impossible to grow outside of their respective homes (even other parts of Italy have trouble with Sangiovese). But Texan vintners are not only growing Sangiovese and Tempranillo, they’re using them to make damn good wine.

Texas’ wines are in a style of their own, and there is nothing I love to see more than an appellation expressing itself through its wines. I’m of the opinion that the place is the most important aspect of the wine. Argentine Malbec should taste like it’s from Argentina, and Malbec from Cahors should taste like it’s from Cahors. I don’t want fruit-driven, low acidity, juicy Pinot Noir from Burgundy. If I wanted Pinot Noir that tastes like it’s from California I would buy Pinot Noir from California. And Texan wine should taste like it’s from Texas. And it does.

Texan wine usually sees the lively fruitiness typical of New World wines, but they also have a refreshing acidity and less full-bodied style. It’s lower alcohol (generally between 12% and 13%***) makes it balanced and easy-drinking. I also like that Texan winemakers tend to forego the use of additional sugars and synthetic yeasts, and avoid the use of new oak, malolactic fermentation, and carbonic maceration. What all of that means is the wines may have some inconsistency from one bottle to the next, but that artisanal approach ultimately makes a more honest wine. But that approach is meaningless if the wine isn’t any good first.

And that’s what Texas has delivered so far, and what I hope they continue to offer. I’ve particularly enjoyed the likes of the Brennan Vineyards Viognier, which is a pretty and playful white wine with apricoty fruit and nice food friendly acidity, and the Llano Estacado Reserve Tempranillo, with its full flavors and peppery notes. It’s good to know wines like these are being made in the most unexpected places.

*In Connecticut, for example, it is illegal to have a television set in a liquor store. The rationale for this, such as it is, is that having a television would promote gambling. The actuality is that most of Connecticut’s blue laws were written immediately after Prohibition was repealed, and television didn’t exist yet.

**American Viticultural Area. What we call our appellations.

***The growing trend is for higher and higher alcohol wines. I’ve seen Zinfandels with ABVs as high as 16%, and that’s getting into Port levels. And, honestly, I don’t want to drink that. Alcohol adds weight, and while heavy wines are pleasant, they are not the only choice. Think of it this way: Double Indemnity is one of the greatest movies of all time. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be in the mood for Barbarella.

P.S. I had a lovely Godello over the weekend. Godello is a white wine from the northwest of Spain, just north of Portugal, that was nearly wiped out under Franco (because that guy was such a dick). It was actually thought to be completely extinct until some vintners in Valdeorras found it growing wild (!) on their property. The wine is crisp and lively, with a floral and citrusy nose like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but a fuller style and creamy texture. It’s a particularly good food wine, and is perfect for swordfish. Has anyone else drank anything cool recently? Let’s talk downstairs.