I'm headed for Texas. I don't seem to have found time for much fine dining yet, but I'm doing OK. The mixed roasted nuts from Duane Reade are, well, crunchy. The Lumberjack's Platter at the Rochester, N.Y., Denny's was sort of exactly what I'd expected. Make that feared. And the gyros at Chicago O'Hare were a blast. "Thick or thinly sliced?" the guy asked. Since I didn't actually know what a gyro was, I said, "Oh, don't worry about slicing, I'll take it as it is." So he showed me the gyro. "Thinly," I said, bleakly. It'll be better in Texas.
And I'm here. The driver leaves my bags on the sidewalk, turns the engine on. I get in. Then he loads the trunk. Welcome to the world of compulsory air-conditioning. I get to my hotel. "Dinner finishes at seven," the front desk clerk says. "Sorry, starts at seven?" "No, finishes." It's a different country, Texas. Can I get a glass of wine? Sure. Is it local? Sure. Can I see the bottle? Silly me. Fred Franzia may be a lot of things, but Texan he ain't.
Even so, I try a mouthful of Steakhouse Beef. Juicy, tender. Where's my palate gone? That seasoning could launch a moon shot. So I head to a bar to watch the Yankees–Rangers game. This looks promising. Texan red. Alamos Malbec. Texan Shmexan. Argentina clearly has an Alamo, too. I wonder whether I'm not quite getting the hang of Texas.
I need to get out of town. So I do. Up into the Hill Country near Austin. I'd heard how beautiful the Hill Country was and, well, it's very nice. Hilly. Lots of stumpy oaks and juniper trees. But it's not quite upstate New York in the fall. There are a few wineries, although vineyards seem to be in pretty short supply.
Yet it's clearly the wineries that matter; Texas Hill Country is the second most visited American wine area after Napa. That does surprise me, except when the locals describe to me the countryside spreading between San Antonio, Houston and Dallas—three of the U.S.'s bigger cities—and I begin to realize that perhaps these gentle rolling hills are a kind of paradise in a pretty rough land, and that a winery trip could easily be made to seem irresistible. Suddenly, it makes sense to hear people describing the Hill Country in terms of wine tourism, rather than wine production.
And quite a few of the wines do seem to be made with the quick-turnover tasting-room consumer very much in mind. Easy to drink, soft, young, sometimes not quite dry. As Wes Marshall, a local wine writer and my new "best buddy" drinking partner in the far south, says: The greatest luck and curse for Texas wine is that they can sell every drop they make. Texas wants her wines to be lauded out in the world, but the world never sees them. They've all been drunk by Texans.
Wes starts pulling out the bottles, and things begin to become a little clearer. Firstly, I'd heard tell that the best Texan vineyard soil was probably in the High Plains around Lubbock, and a lot of the wines I liked best were made from High Plains fruit. But most of the winery addresses are down in the Hill Country near Austin. Encouragingly the best stuff with a Lubbock address was from Llano Estacado, whose spicy, zippy Viviana white blend and delightfully fresh unoaked Chardonnay were top drops.
But the last few years in the High Plains show how Texas is not natural vineyard country. Until the resplendent 2010 vintage came along, they'd had terrible conditions up north for five long years. One of their best vineyards had lost its crop five years in a row—frost, hail, tornados, monsoons, the usual stuff. You need some Texan bloody-mindedness to carry on. And some imagination.
Oz Clarke breathes in the fresh Hill Country air at Fall Creek Vineyard in Tow, Texas.
Looking at these climatic conditions, I felt there were too many classic French varieties planted, and not enough hardy performers from elsewhere. Then I came across a smashing, vivacious, 2009 Vermentino from Duchman off High Plains fruit, and listened to empassioned descriptions of a 2009 Dolcetto, and I thought, yes, more Italian varieties would suit Texas very well—Fiano, Falanghina, Verdicchio and Grillo for whites, Sangiovese, Barbera, Nero d'Avola amongst the reds. And Tempranillo from Spain must have a chance here. And they might help the search for a Texan style.
If I had to choose French grapes that were producing really interesting stuff, I'd put Viognier up there, though the results are more erratic than Virginia's. I think both Cabernet Franc and Tannat have a future—perhaps Petit Verdot. And maybe some of the less well-known Rhône varieties. Becker Vineyards already does a splendid Provençal Mourvèdre Rosé and a nice, raspberryish Châteauneuf-du-Pape-y, Rhône-style blend called Prairie Rôtie. In fact, Becker is probably the winery I was most impressed by.
I wandered off into the night with the brilliant burnt acid intensity of a Haak Madeira Jacquez 2006 stinging my gums and found a place downtown that might serve me some chow. "The unlicensed possession of a weapon is a felony with a maximum penalty of ten years imprisonment," the notice warned me. But then I saw the blackboard. "Fried Chicken and Champagne? Why the hell not!" Hell, yes. Texas. A very different place.
[Note: Jacquez is a hybrid from the island of Madeira and is being phased out.]