I always like to say, when someone scoffs at the mention of wine from "atypical" places, that back in the day people used to laugh at the idea of wine from California. Who's laughing now?
Visiting emerging wine regions is fascinating and exciting to me. Producers are still trying to figure it all out: what their terroir offers, which grapes to grow, how to make the wine …. Very slowly, often painfully so, they are working to shape an entire wine region—one that could be great. This is how I felt when I visited Texas Hill Country this past November.
For more on traveling to Austin and the Hill Country area, including where to eat and stay, pick up a copy of Wine Spectator's June 15 issue, on newsstands May 14.
More than a decade ago, Chris Brundrett was about to leave his native Texas to follow some job offers in California. He was working in the local wine industry and had grown disgruntled by its slow progression. Then he met Bill Blackmon, a pioneer vintner who planted his first vineyard in 1983 in the High Plains, near Lubbock, and moved down to Hill Country in 1996. The two men bonded over a shared philosophy: that wine should have a sense of place, and that Texas has enormous potential.
Brundrett stayed. He and Blackmon made their first vintage together in 2008 and bought their winery in Hye in 2010. Today, William Chris Vineyards makes about 30,000 cases of wine from their 6.5-acre estate vineyard, as well as from dozens of vineyards throughout the state that they either farm themselves or buy grapes from. Rhône varieties are their main focus, especially Mourvèdre, which they mostly bottle standalone. They also make Merlot, Sangiovese, Roussanne, rosé and sparkling wine, among others.
The William Chris wines are qualitatively a whole lot better than what you might expect from Texas if you have preconceived notions (yes, summers here are hotter than a stolen tamale). Their wines are balanced and elegant, with vibrant fruit profiles and great structures. But it doesn't matter if you're making the best wines in the world: If all your neighbors' wines are mediocre, no one will take your region seriously. It takes a village.
Coming of age
There has been tremendous growth in Hill Country, with more wineries popping up every year. Brundrett remembers when there were only five wineries on his road; now there are about 60 within a half-hour drive. Some of this growth, however, has come in the form of quick-buck enotourism, geared toward bachelorette parties and tasting-room crawls, where quality is an afterthought.
Luckily, many of William Chris' neighbor vintners are now making great wine as well. "I always joke that I'll be Chris Brundrett's Warren Winiarski to his Robert Mondavi any day," says Regan Meador of Southold Farm & Cellar. He and his wife, Carey, moved from New York to Hill Country in 2017. They had started Southold on Long Island in 2015, but one day the town flip-flopped on their decision to allow them to build a facility. The Meadors packed up and moved to Texas, where Regan is from.
They settled on a hilltop property 18 miles east of Fredericksburg. They planted 16 acres of rootstock on the hillside, but Regan isn't in any hurry to decide what grapes to put in. Right now, he's tinkering with the varieties he's getting from his vineyard partners. He has two of them, one in Hill Country, where he gets almost 90 percent of his fruit, and one in the High Plains.
Southold makes low-intervention wine in an Old World style from about 10 different grapes, and mostly focuses on blends, like the Albariño-Roussanne and Cabernet Franc–Sangiovese bottlings I tasted during my visit. "Everything's on the table," Regan explained. He ferments his fruit separately without fixed plans, and then plays around with it in the cellar. If a single variety keeps showing well over time and outshines everything, that's when he thinks it should be planted. "It took thousands of years to figure out Burgundy," he said.
Besides, the Texas wine industry has much more immediate matters to address than which grape varieties to grow, like whether or not Texas wine even needs to be made entirely from Texas-grown grapes. Currently, only 75 percent of a wine's grapes need to be from the state in order to label it "Texas." This is the federal labeling standard, but more serious wine regions like California and Oregon mandate 100 percent. It's not uncommon for producers in Texas to supplement their blends with fruit from California.
A bill was introduced in the Texas legislature last month that would raise the state's minimum to 100 percent, incrementally over five years. (Producers could still make wine with out-of-state grapes, they just won't be able to put Texas on the label.) The folks at William Chris are heavily invested in this fight, believing this measure will elevate the credibility of Texas wine, and have banded together with a bunch of other likeminded producers.
"I just don't think anyone in the wine world matters until they're only making wine with a sense of place," said Benjamin Calais of Calais Winery, who is also a vocal proponent of the bill. He's a French (from the city of Calais, believe it or not) computer engineer by trade who moved to Dallas and started his winery in 2008 as a side-project; he moved his facility to Hill Country in 2015 and is now making wine full-time. He focuses on Bordeaux varieties, among others, made in a ripe, fruit-forward style, which he sources from five vineyard partners in the High Plains and Davis Mountains AVAs, who custom-farm for him. He plans on planting 2.5 acres of Tannat in 2020 on his own property, a grape he thinks will do very well in Texas.
Most of his wines are vineyard-designated, a point of pride for Calais, who thinks the Texas wine industry can only move forward if vintners start understanding the state's different terroirs and figuring out how to make high-quality wine from season to season with only state-grown grapes. "Innovation always comes out of necessity. If the option is always on the table to do it with California juice, then the economics take over," he told me. Opponents of the wine-labeling bill point to the highly variable weather in Texas as a reason not to impose such measures. No one said it would be easy—just ask world-renowned regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux or Champagne.
If you don't like the weather, just wait a minute
"In Texas every vintage is so diverse, as winemakers and winegrowers, we've got to be on our toes and be able to shift gears and shift styles," said Brundrett. In 2017, as Hurricane Harvey was approaching the Texas coast, he and Blackmon looked at a plot of Merlot that was not quite ready to pick. Not wanting to leave it on the vines for the storm to ruin, they harvested it and made a great rosé pétillant naturel. In 2015, unusual weather conditions produced botrytis on some Chenin Blanc grapes in a vineyard owned by a friend of Calais, which typically never happens in Texas. Calais convinced his friend not to spray a small part of the 20-acre plot, bought the grapes and made his delicious Sauternes-style Botrytis Texan cuvée. "We'll probably never get to make that wine again," he said. So is the life of a vintner working at the mercy of Mother Nature.
There's a lot of potential in Texas and a lot of work has already been done, but there's still a ways to go. "This is Napa in the late sixties," Calais said. Exploding tourism to the area is bound to help along the industry. Another thing working in Texas wine's favor is Texans themselves. "There's a lot of built-in state pride, so the industry is very much supported by the home state," said Regan Meador of Southold. Because the state is so big, local wineries might never need to venture out-of-state to sell all of their wine, but the vintners I spoke to agreed that national and international recognition and distribution will be crucial to the long-term well-being of the industry.
In the meantime, get yourself out there to experience this up-and-coming region. Maybe 20 years from now, you'll be telling your friends you were drinking Texas wine before it was cool … or cult.