Vintage 2017 En Primeur Tasting Shows Texas Wine is the Next Big Story

As the Texas wine industry continues to grow by leap and bounds across the board in quality, grape yields and Best of Class and Double Gold showings in international competitions, so does its contribution to the state’s economy. The 2017 Economic Impact Report on American Wine Industry, commissioned by WineAmerica, shows that the Texas wine industry contributes $13.1 billion to the state’s economy through jobs, taxes and tourism.

An industry that was once viewed as a cottage industry for well-heeled retirees, experimental agriculturalists and palate-passionate outliers is now bringing an economic renaissance to small town Texas. Downtown Fredericksburg is a testament to the economic impact of the wine industry. The once sleepy town at the heart of the Hill Country was settled by German immigrants and served as a gathering place on weekends for local farm and ranch families to shop and worship. Today, the old Sunday houses have been reborn as bed and breakfast lodgings for the throngs of wine-centric tourists who flock to wineries that line US Highway 290 between Austin and Fredericksburg. The Hwy. 290 wine trail is second only to California’s Napa Valley as the most visited wine trail in the US. The town’s rapid renaissance is serving as a template for growth to business leaders and merchants in other small towns.

Click for graphic: What’s in a Bottle of Wine?

Even with medals and accolades from well-respected wine competitions, the belief persists that Texas wine cannot compete on the world stage. Until recently, the state’s wine industry was best known for sourcing bulk juice from the West coast and packaging it under Texas themed labels. The plentiful harvests of 2015, 2016 and 2017 have allowed more of the state’s wineries to source Texas-grown grapes. This is a significant development as winemakers can now work more closely with grape growers to create a product that expresses the locale in which it was grown — known as terroir or provenance in the wine world.

A wine expressing terroir usually requires little to no chemical manipulation in the winemaking process and allows the varietals to fully express their flavor profiles. It is this artistry of winemaking over the chemistry processes that produces the hallmarks of fine wines. It is the reputation for fine wines that draws tourists to specific appellations of excellence.

An en primeur tasting arranged by Matt McGinnis, Pen & Tell Us, Austin, for the 2017 vintage allowed us to experience some of the finest wines being produced in the Hill Country. Our tour focused on three wineries at the northern edge of the Texas Hill Country AVA: Fall Creek Vineyards in Tow, Wedding Oak Winery in San Saba and Perissos Vineyard and Winery near Marble Falls and Burnet.

Phil Price, Winemaker, Fall Creek Vineyards, Tow, TX

Legacy of Excellence

One of the early wineries with a Texas terroir focus is Fall Creek Vineyards, first planted in 1975 and established as a winery in 1980 by Ed and Susan Auler. In those early years, a business plan for a Texas winery that focused on terroir over eye-level shelf presence in the grocery store wine aisles was a difficult proposition. A lengthy list of recent awards speaks to the Aulers’ years of dedication to finding grape varietals that thrive in the soils and climates in which they’re planted.

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking, and Phil Price, Winemaker, lead us through a tasting of nine wines of the 2017 vintage. Even though Fall Creek is one of the oldest operating wineries in the state, the winemakers are still blazing new trails with this new vintage in utilizing wild (indigenous) yeasts for fermentation. The resulting young wines are already showing great promise with true varietal characteristics and depth of flavor. (Tasting notes for my top three wines from each winery that are showing well early are included at the end of this post.) Their successes are drawing crowds to the more accessible Fall Creek tasting room in Driftwood, just across the parking lot from famed Salt Lick BBQ. Ame Brewster, Director of Operations in Driftwood and WSET Level 3, says they’re seeing an ever increasing mix of both in-state and out-of-state visitors at the tasting room.

Promising Wine Futures

Wine tourism is bringing visitors to Wedding Oak Winery, a 2012 addition to the state’s wine industry. Their San Saba winery is just 35 minutes west of US Highway 281, a scenic alternative to the traffic and headaches of traveling Interstate 35 between Austin and Fort Worth. Self-proclaimed as the “Pecan Capital of the World”, the town is most often frequented on Thursdays for the weekly livestock auction. Yet in just over five years since the winery’s founding, San Saba is already seeing economic benefits. Built in 1913, the historic Dofflemeyer building next door to Wedding Oak has been restored and renovated to house a boutique six room hotel along with a coffee shop and bistro. Local merchants have chipped in to upgrade old sidewalks and scaffolding surrounding the county courthouse speaks to a renovation underway.

Winemaker Penny Adams is responsible for Wedding Oak’s award-winning wines, which naturally focus on Texas terroir-driven varietals (she planted her first vineyard in the Hill Country soils of Blanco County in 1978). Adams said that the never ending question of what varietals grow best in Texas is still being debated as grape growers realize the vast diversity of macro, meso and micro levels of climates and soil compositions. Adams illustrated, “When wine makers and growers gather, we throw our votes for top picks into a hat and we end up with 20 different types.”

Adams and assistant winemaker Seth Urbanek lead us through barrel tastings of five 2016 and 2017 vintage wines. There are some sure bets for medal winners among these yet-to-be-bottled wines. Wedding Oak’s wines are also available at their tasting room at the Wildseed Farms outside of Fredericksburg on Hwy. 290.

Seth Urbanek, Asst. Winemaker, Wedding Oak Winery, San Saba,

Only a 15 to 20 minute drive from Hwy. 281 (depending on whether you’re traveling from Texas’ own weekend playground for nouveau riche in Marble Falls or the more subdued sister city of Burnet), the idyllic setting of Perissos Vineyard and Winery at the south end of the pink granite hills of Inks Lake State Park beckons to wine travelers like a siren. Owner and winemaker Seth Martin shows a depth and breadth of technical expertise being utilized in vineyard management down to the microbial level along with state-of-the-art winery production management techniques. In my industry career spanning three decades, I have never experienced at any winery in my many travels, in any vintner dinner, in any private vineyard tour or private dinners with winemakers, the level of knowledge that Seth Martin shared with us. The Best in Class and Double Gold awards for his handcrafted wines are a testament to his dedication.

Brent Pape, Asst. Winemaker, Perissos Vineyards, Burnet, TX

Martin and assistant winemaker Brent Pape lead us through eight tastings of four varietals, comprised of both a bottled and tank or barrel sample of each. It looks like they have made an excellent choice when it comes to Aglianico and Montepulciano (Italian transplants) as every sample we tasted, both this year and in last year’s tour, is true to the varietal and shows extremely well, having won  noteworthy awards for previous vintages. With Martin’s laser-like focus at getting it right, Perissos is sure to be awarded more purple Gold and Best of Class medals in the future.

Legacies are in the making with these and many other passionate owners,  winemakers and grape growers in the Texas wine industry. The winescape seems to be reaching escape velocity. Taste for yourself so that you can tell your friends, “Texas is making award-winning wines!”

Stand outs of the Roll Out the Barrel 2017 en primeur tour:

Fall Creek Vineyards, Tow, Llano County
Ed and Susan Auler, Owners
Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking, and Phil Price, Winemaker
2017 Sauvignon Blanc, Escondido Valley (Pecos County)
Fermented with wild yeast. Floral notes on the nose. On the palate, crisp acidity with notes of tropical fruits and a touch of creaminess on the finish. Delicious, just as it was when we tasted the previous vintage last year.

2017 Tempranillo, Texas Hill Country, Hays County, Salt Lick Vineyard
Fermented with wild yeast. Beautiful dark color and fruits, notes of red meat, leather, earth with fine tannins and a long finish.

2017 Petit Verdot, Texas Hill Country
Fermented with wild yeast. Inky black color, dark fruits, firm but silky tannins and nice finish. Will only get better with some bottle rest.

Wedding Oak Winery, San Saba, San Saba County
Mike and Lynn McHenry, Managing Partners
Penny Adams, Winemaker, and Seth Urbanek, Asst. Winemaker
All wine samples were pulled right out of the barrels and, as Winemaker Penny Adams famously says, some are like awkward teenagers that need a little time to develop.
2017 Viognier, Texas Hill Country, San Saba County, High Valley Vineyards (Estate)
Light straw color floral aromas bright acidity, white stone fruit, medium to full bodied, touch of minerality and nice finish.

2016 Tempranillo Reserva, Texas Hill Country, Lampasas County, Mirasol Vineyards (Old Block)
Dark color, with notes of dark plum, light tobacco, dusty earth and medium tannins balanced with dark fruit. Oak aged neutral French oak for 17 months.

2017 Petit Verdot, Texas High Plains, Terry County, Narra Family Vineyards
Inky black color, aromas of plum and lilac. Granite minerality, firm to soft silky tannins with rich dark fruit to the last drop. Aged in neutral French oak for 5 months. This is one of the best Petit Verdot that I’ve tasted since a wine trip to California’s Spring Mountain AVA six years ago. That PV was selling for $65/btl at the winery.

Perissos Vineyard and Winery, Burnet County (south of Inks Lake)
Seth and Laura Martin, Owners
Seth Martin, Winemaker, and Brent Pape, Asst. Winemaker
75% of grapes used are estate grown, remainder is sourced from Texas vineyards.
Perissos is producing their first Rosé made from estate-grown Montepulciano. This drinks very nicely and should sell out quickly. Winemaker and owner Seth Martin continues to produce a rarely seen estate-grown and exceptional, Best in Class award-winning Aglianico.

2015 Aglianico, Texas Hill Country, Burnet County, Perissos Estate
Deep Garnet color, on the palate nice balance of dark cherry, white pepper, acid and tannins with nice finish.

2017 Aglianico, Texas Hill Country, Burnet County, Perissos Estate
Fresh out of the barrel, it promises to follow in the footsteps of previous vintages. Garnet/purple color, bright edginess, still a bit tight on the fruit, a slight green note, but like an awkward teenager, it will mature.

2017 Petite Sirah, Texas Hill County, Burnet County, Perissos Estate
Barrel sample. Deep, dark inky color with aromas of plum tightly wrapping dark fruit, firm tannins. Generally used as a blending wine due to the inky color, but this could be a nice stand alone.

~ Dale Blankenship and Catherine Sansing