I knew something of the area through my research for my last article and through a visit with my fiancée and friends a few years ago. However, the landscape has changed since then all around for wine culture. Just a few years ago, very few people outside of the industry wanted to branch out and try the new and unquantified. Even getting people to drink something besides Sutter Home Moscato was a challenge. Now, with the advent of the locavore movement, things are different. Very, very different.
If I had to guess, I think people are bored and growing tired of the same-old, same-old. There will always be a market for the greats, always people who stolidly extol Cabernet as the be-all, end-all King of the Grapes and always a group of extraordinarily talented individuals deserving of such praise and all that folllows. Yet there's a burgeoning crowd of people for whom, for better or worse, are thinking that the Old Guard just isn't enough any longer. Not invalidating them or thinking that they're not worthy of their elite status, but just... wanting more.
These are the people you find at the local food truck parks, the Asian strip mall noodle joint, the microbrewery beer gardens... and, most germanely, those who think that despite its unfamiliarity that maybe they ought give that no-name Rioja or Tannat a try and are finding to their surprise that it's to their taste. Or perhaps, more importantly, changing it.
This is all conjecture from a nobody twenty-something in Houston, but I feel pretty comfortable saying this: wine culture has always been at its best when it has a fresh crop of people who are willing to embrace the new and different while still remaining respectful of what's come before. And upon revisiting the Hill Country AVA, it's readily apparent that it's not just an attraction for the same, but also a home and a calling for them as wine growers and makers.
As the car wound and hobbled over the old roads, it became clearer and clearer that I knew a lot less than I thought I had. Thankfully, the area had a lot that it was ready and willing to teach.
THE TEXAS WINE TRAIL The Old 290 highway plays host to one of the most lucrative tourist destinations among locals here in the Lone Star State: the Texas Wine Trail.
With roughly 5 million-plus visitors each year, the Texas Wine Trail is a loose collective of 42 wineries in the Hill Country AVA (the 2nd largest in America). These wineries range from simple back room cellars of old stores in towns like Fredericksburg, to smaller chateaus in Dripping Springs, all the way to mammoth operations like Becker Vineyards which you can find in pretty much any grocery or liquor store in the state.
This is an indicator of what seems to be the running theme around these parts: diversity. There's an insane amount of latitude taken with then varietals these winemakers are working with. I saw vineyards being sown with Montepulciano and Aglianico in tandem with a small batch of Chablis-clone Chardonnay, maybe 150 yards from each other. The High Plains region near Lubbock, where many of the vineyard seem to be sourcing grapes from, is an agricultural miracle that seems to produce just about anything you like at varying quality.
I can't lie and say that every single wine that I tried was fantastic. But despite a mediocre reputation and decidedly less to work with than other states, Texas is giving everything that it has to be the very best at what it does. Let me reiterate: the best at what it does. Not California, not Oregon, not even Washington. Texas is a different animal in most respects to just about anything you can think of a state already. Naturally, its winemaking follows suit.
There's a lot of exposition in this regard that I covered in my last article, but the general gist is that instead of the traditional varietals that the Lone Star State is incapable of doing any better than a mediocre job on are being eschewed for less-than-obvious choices: Tannat, Petite Sirah, Ruby Cab, Muscat Canelli, Chenin Blanc, Corvina.... and what is a likely candidate for our state's best grape, Tempranillo.
The conditions near identical to dry and arid Spain while still maintaining a incredible palate burst of fruit and juiciness that you'd expect of the New World. Like Zinfandel in California, it's a beautiful reinterpretation of an old classic, a bright and new wine that was once derided as common and unworthy of high attention... a simple idea that can change people's paradigms.
If you're willing to embrace the new and different, that is.