Old World Grapes, Texas Terroir and a Chilean Master Winemaker

26 Feb


Fall Creek Vineyards (www.fcv.com) is not an easy place to find – it lies near the far northern end of the popular Texas Wine trail, overlooking the Colorado River in a bucolic Texas-ranch setting.  And for those who are looking for the best Texas wines, it is a not-to-be-missed stop on a tour of Hill Country wineries.

It is not an overstatement to say that Fall Creek Vineyards’ history is synonymous with Texas Hill Country Wine history.  In fact, owners Ed and Susan Auler were instrumental in establishing the Texas Hill Country American Viticulture Area.  The Texas Hill Country AVA, established in 1991, is the second largest of the over 200 AVA’s in the country and arguably the AVA with the most improved wines.  Many wine producers in the hill country do blend the local grapes with those from other areas of Texas (most notably the High Plains Region) or even from other states in order to obtain the complexity, balance and flavor profile they desire.   But one of the most impressive things about Fall Creek Vineyards is that the majority of their wines come exclusively from Hill Country grapes, with the bottles bearing the “Texas Hill Country” appellation.  In recent years many of these wines have competed in national and international competitions and won scores of awards, from Best-in-Class to Double Gold, Gold and Silver medals.

In years past, most wine experts dismissed Texas as a premium wine producer because of the heat.  Certainly the heat profile here is far higher than any areas of California, with summer highs over 100 (for weeks in a row) and nighttime lows not much below 85.  So how do Fall Creek and a few other hill country wineries manage to make world-class wines?  Well, look at where some of the earliest wines were made.  From biblical and other historical accounts, the Middle East made and consumed wine several thousand years ago.  There is significant evidence of winemaking in Shiraz (quite a recognizable name in the wine world!) Iran.  And when the annual heat profile of Shiraz Iran is compared to Llano County in the Texas Hill Country it is seen to be not just similar, but identical.  Same number and magnitude of heat degree days, same diurnal (day to night) variation.  So, historically, many Vitis Vinifera varieties can be and have been grown in this kind of weather.  Also the soil of the best Texas Hill Country AVA vineyards is similar to that in southern France and parts of Spain and Italy: limestone-based with excellent drainage.  And the altitude here, 1300 to 1350 feet, is identical to that of the great Tempranillo vineyards of Rioja Spain.

Without getting much into Biology, suffice it to say that the Vinifera vines have a “heat –protection gene” which is triggered in regions that have not heat spikes (which damage the canopy and negatively impact the fruit), but consistent heat throughout the growing season.  The better viticulturists in Texas know how to manage vine canopies, placement and irrigation to grow many varietals that typically thrive in cooler climates, and make world-class wine with that fruit.  Fall Creek Vineyard’s chief winemaker, Sergio Cuadra, can talk with passion on this subject for hours!  Formerly the principal winemaker at several Conche Y Toro facilities, Sergio is the first internationally-renowned winemaker in the employ of a Texas winery.

At a recent tour and tasting in Fall Creek Vineyard’s barrel-aginimg_2833g facility, Sergio shared four award-winning Texas Hill Country wines and four barrel samples.  Frankly, the top two wines we tasted here represented the only Bordeaux and Burgundy style wines from Texas that I have tasted which are on a par with those from their respective French appellations.

Here is a synopsis:

FCV Vintners Select Sauvignon Blanc, Texas 2016.   Vivid acidity (thanks to a July harvest, 2-3 months before Loire Valley harvests), lime and green apple on the nose and a full-bodied tropical fruit palate.  Very expressive, with expanding complexity as the glass was aerated.  90

FCV Terroir Reflection Chardonnay “Certenberg Vineyards” 2015.   Wow.  This one fooled the blind tasters in Houston, who were convinced it was from Burgundy!  16 months in French Oak, smooth and creamy but not an oaky butter-bomb like many Napa Chard’s.  Aroma and palate of pear and stone fruits, with tropical notes.  A touch of vanilla.  Great balance! 92

FCV Meritus, Texas Hill Country, 2013.  This Right-Bank Bordeaux blend (53% Merlot, 47% Cab Sauv) is a deep, dark ruby in color.  Beautiful aromas of dark berries, currant and vanilla.  Elegant round tannins and a medium-long finish.  This one earned a Gold medal in San Francisco last month against international competition.  92.

FCV Salt Lick Vineyard Tempranillo (2016, still in barrel).  Grown across the street from the famous Salt Lick Barbecue in Driftwood Texas, with a little more time in the barrel this is going to be a great Tempranillo.  Red fruit, tobacco and structured tannins – much like Tempranillo from Rioja.  89



An Afternoon of Texas Boutique Wines

11 Feb


In January 2017 Texas appellation wines were awarded 158 medals at the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.  These medals included an unprecedented seven “Best in Class” awards as well as dozens of double-golds, golds, silvers and bronzes.  And it was just five years ago that Texas earned its very first double-gold!  The impressive showing last month did not surprise me – over the past few years I have written a few blog posts on Texas wines, and it seems that every time I return they get better.

This year, with 6 weeks to spend visiting wineries (and barbecue joints!) I am taking my time and delving deep into Texas-style food and wine.  Last week I found two off-the-beaten-track family owned estate wineries.  In both cases the owners are knowledgeable of wine and viticulture and have planted varietals that thrive in the hot, dry terroir of the Hill Country.

Hill Country Cellars Winery, owned by a former Navy aviation tech and his customer-service pro wife, offered a deep plum colored Malbec with layers of red fruit, plum and vanilla oak on a foundation of soft tannins.  Rich and smooth, I would have guessed this was produced in Mendoza.  And the price, less than $20/bottle, was very attractive.  Their Rosé of Shiraz was fruity and silky, but lacked the acidity of a refreshing French rosé.  The Chardonnay was surprisingly good given the warm climate.  Very pale gold in color and made in the Burgundian style, fermented in stainless steel tanks with zero malolactic fermentation, the tropical fruit flavors of a warm-climate Chardonnay are allowed to shine through.  A clean fruit finish.  Again, the price point is surprisingly low, at under $20.

Almost hidden on the scenic Highway 90 just east of Hondo, Vines on the Rocks is a boutique vineyard specializing in Tempranillo and Black Spanish (Lenoir) grapes (perfect fits for the local hot climate and rocky terroir).  Owner Mike Brawley skillfully manages his vineyards which surround the winery, and makes Tempranillo in the style of Rioja, with lush dark fruit and a hint of cigar box.  This year’s vintage (2015) is called Toreador’s Temptress, with beautiful dark plum up-front and hints of chocolate and cedar.  Snacks are offered in the tasting room and selected offerings from other Texas wineries are available as well.  Mike had deep knowledge of the local terroir and vineyard management, and it was a pleasure learning from him while sipping the delicious Toreador’s Temptress.

Over the next couple of weeks I will be visiting many more Texas wineries and am sure to find more delicious bargains!toreadors-temptress


The Story of Carménère and a Perfect Pairing

11 Jan


Having spent the past couple of weeks in Texas, arguably the barbecue capital of the world, I am compelled to share the story of Carménère, considered the national grape of Chile and known throughout the world as an ideal wine to pair with barbecue.  It was a happy surprise to find this bottle of 2012 Los Vascos Grande Reserva Carménère in a small south Texas town near the Rio Grande.

While not widely known in the United States, Carménère is to Chile as Malbec is to Argentina, and is one of the six varieties that are allowed for use in making red Bordeaux wines.  While born on the left bank of Bordeaux, Carménère really came into its own with the climate and terroir of the Chilean wine regions.  The grape is persnickety in the French climate and is rarely seen in Bordeaux wines these days.  A few cuttings were fortuitously imported into Chile in 1850 and, ironically, for a century the variety was mistaken for a late-ripening Merlot (and at times is still seen to be mislabeled as Merlot).  Chile is one of the few areas in the world that have remained free of Phylloxera, which caused The Great French Wine Blight and nearly wiped out the French wine industry in the 1860’s.  Because of this, Carménère from Chile is still grown from old Bordeaux rootstock rather than being grafted and cloned off of American rootstock as are most wines today.

The management of Los Vascos vineyards and winemaking was taken over in 1988 by Domaines Baron de Rothschild (Lafite), one of the four Premier Cru’s named in Napoleon’s 1855 Classification which ranked Bordeaux’ best wines from first to fifth growths (crus).  As one of the top wine producers in France, Lafite Rothschild is an ideal fit to bring about the full expression of this old Bordeaux varietal.  The oversight of Los Vascos’ vineyards and winemaking was not the first time Lafite’s wines crossed paths with the new world:  on the eve of the French revolution when Lafite was at the height of its winemaking legacy, Thomas Jefferson, future President of the United States, waxed poetic about its wines and became a lifelong customer.

The 2012 Los Vascos Grande Reserva Carménère has been aged 12 months in oak, with at least 60% of the barrels being new oak, which has the greatest concentration of oak flavors and tannins.  The vineyard is in the Colchagua Valley, one of Chile’s best known wine appellations and highly regarded for its full-bodied Malbecs, Cabernet Sauvignons and of course Carménères.  This is a rich and full expression of Carmenére, with a deep purple hue and medium body.  Red fruits on the nose, with a smooth palate of plum and blueberry and a long finish of dark chocolate and soft tannins.  I see this as a 90 to 92 rated wine.  There were 13000 cases produced in the 2012 vintage, so should still be widely available.  My recommendation is to grab some mesquite-smoked brisket or beef ribs and a bottle of Los Vascos.  Cheers!

The Fine Wines of Tombstone

2 Jan


Having spent the past 2 weeks in tasting rooms from Napa to Santa Barbara to Temecula to the Sonoita Arizona AVA, I was not expecting to encounter wines of commensurate quality and character in Tombstone…  And then I found Silver Strike Winery!

In the heart of historic Tombstone, Silver Strike is just steps away from the famous OK Corral and maintains an old-west feel and a comfortable ambiance.  And the wine is (really!) outstanding.   The varietals and blends here are mostly made from grapes grown in America’s newest Viticulture Area – the Willcox AVA, which was just certified in October 2016.  As in the Sonoita AVA about 50 miles to the west, the Willcox vineyards produce excellent Mediterranean grape varieties.  Like Sonoita, the vineyards are quite southerly in latitude, but at almost a mile high in elevation they offer a combination of warm, sunny days and very cool nights.  In addition, the arid climate stresses the vines which helps bring about more intensive flavors in the grapes.

Owners and winemakers Jann and Hank Bengel take great pride in their wine making, using biodynamically grown grapes and all natural wine-making processes, with NO added sulfites.  The resulting wines are complex, smooth and balanced.  I would love to see their Cab or Zin-Syrah blend sent in to Robert Parker or Wine Spectator; I bet they would score over 90 points.  Assistant Winemaker Brittany was manning the Tasting Room when I visited, and she was a wealth of knowledge regarding the viticulture and oenology behind the wines.  She finished the tasting session by offering their deep, rich 5 year old Syrah based Port, which is fortified with an Italian brandy and worth every penny of the $100 per bottle cost.  Other wines that stood out:

  • 2013 Big Bore. This Sangiovese is light in body and color, and more complex than many young Sangiovese varietal wines.  Aroma and flavor notes of strawberry and sour cherry, with a touch of pepper on the back pallet.  8.5/10
  • 2013 Deep Core Cab. This was the first wine that really surprised me.  The fresh burst of cassis and dark plum is beautifully balanced with round tannins and low acidity.  Delicious on its own but would pair very well with roast meats.  9/10
  • 2013 Tempest. A Tempranillo in the Rioja style.  Aged in raw French Oak with surprising complexity, there are clear notes of dark berries, plum and white pepper with a medium finish of soft tannins and leather.  9/10
  • Zinful Ways. 78% Zinfandel and 22% Petite Sirah.  This medium bodied ruby wine blew me away with its depth of flavor.  Berry jam on the nose, red and black berries and spice on the palate and a beautiful long finish. 9+

All in all, the Silver Strike tasting room and wines could proudly stand on their own in any winemaking region in California.

The Wines of Arizona’s Original AVA

31 Dec


The popularity of wine in the United States has soared since 1976 when California wines won “the judgment of Paris”.   In this Paris blind tasting some of the best whites and reds of France were pitted against those feisty upstarts in California, and by large margins the U.S. won in both categories – Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay against Burgundy’s best and Stag’s Leap’s Cabernet Sauvignon against some of the best houses of Bordeaux.  Since that momentous (for the wine world) event, vineyards and wineries have proliferated across the United States, and now wine is made in every state in the union.

Of course, many of the wines from states other than California, Oregon, Washington and New York are touristy novelties rather than serious high quality wines: usually sweet and many times made from whatever fruits and berries are indigenous to the winery’s home state.  At one time, Arizona wines were considered by many to be novelty wines.  That all changed when much vaunted wine critic Robert Parker, founder of the Wine Advocate, awarded a 1993 red blend from Sonoita’s Callaghan Vineyards with 92 points – a high honor indeed.

Today, there are over 110 wineries in Arizona, and many have won awards and global recognition.  There are two AVA’s (American Viticulture Area) in Arizona: the Sonoita AVA,  established in 1984 and the origin of 74% of all Arizona grapes and, as of Sept 2016, the brand new Willcox AVA.  During my tour of the Sonoita area I sampled wines from four wineries and found that many of the wines, particularly reds, were outstanding.  Sonoita AVA’s latitude is significantly south of the best new- or old-world vineyards, but at almost 5000′ of elevation the nights here are cool and hang time (length of time before harvest) is longer than at most California vineyards.  This hang time and the warm summer days result in grapes of intense flavor.

Of note were the Rhone-based blends of Sonoita Vineyards and Italian varietals of Lightning Ridge Cellars.  Sonoita Vineyards was the first commercial winery in the region, and currently produces about 4000 cases per year from over 60 acres of vineyards.  Tasting room rep Mercé was knowledgeable and informative, and the room was cozy and inviting, with samples of olive oils and wonderful balsamics as well.  The wines:

  • 2013 Buddy D’s ZinGioVe.  A blend of 60% Sangiovese and 40% Zinfandel.   Light to medium body with red fruit on the palate, good acidity, and touches of pepper and tobacco.  9 out of 10
  • 2013 MeCaSah.  A fruit forward blend of Merlot, Cab Sauv and Syrah, with a light oaky finish.  Very smooth tannins.  8.5
  • 2013 Malbec.  Loads of black fruit with a touch of cigar box on the midpalate.  Delicious!  9
  • 2015 Mission.  Mission grapes were some of the first wine grapes in the new world, brought to us by, you guessed it, missionaries.  Most mission grape vineyards are now long gone, but Sonoita has brought this varietal back, producing a unique semi-sweet red with bright red fruit and cedar spice.  8.5 and very interesting!

Lightning Ridge Cellars was a real treat.  Owners Ann and Ron Roncone established the winery in 2005 and their love for, and dedication to, making fine wines is abundantly evident.  Ron served me some of the best Italian varietal wine I have had in our country.    They do one thing differently than most wineries I have visited:  they sufficiently age the wines before putting them on the tasting menu.  Tasting a red that has seen 3 to 4 years in oak barrels is a much smoother and more balanced experience than is found in most tasting room offerings.   Some highlights:

  • 2011 Dolcetto. This Italian varietal is little known outside of the Piemonte in Northwestern Italy.  Lightning Ridge’s offering is made with grapes sourced from Temecula and is lighter than Italian versions, with smooth tannins (thanks to five years of aging?) and low acidity.  Medium-bodied with plum on the nose and palate, with a light oaky finish.  8.5 out of 10.
  • 2013 Sangiovese.  The classic grape of Tuscany grows well in southern Arizona!  Aged 32 months in oak (50% new), with characteristic notes of sour cherry and dried rose petals.  Medium ruby, very smooth and eminently drinkable.  9.
  • 2012 Montepulciano.  A popular varietal in Tuscany that is rarely grown in the U.S., Sonoita Vineyards brings out the best of the Montepulciano grape.  Probably my favorite of 18 wines tasted so far in Arizona, this 100% estate grown varietal is deep purple with medium to full body and complexity.  Dark fruit, tobacco leaf and a light peppery finish, with a foundation of soft tannins and alcohol level of 15.3%.  A delicious 9.5.

All in all, my impressions of the wines of Sonoita compare quite favorably with those I sampled in Temecula California (described in my post last week) and Santa Barbara.  Next week, I’m off to Arizona’s brand new AVA of Willcox.  Cheers!







Temecula AVA Has Come a Long Way

28 Dec


Wine tasting in the Temecula Valley is a far cry from way back in 1984 when the AVA was established.  After fighting and, for the most part, winning a battle against Pierce’s Disease, wineries have proliferated.  Taking advantage of the cool nights with morning fog and long warm sunny days, local wineries have produced numerous wines with 90+ ratings.   Most of the wines I tasted tended towards old-world style with a bit of restraint, rather than the “fruit and oak bombs” for which many California wines are known.

I think the most surprising aspect of the area were, at least on a beautiful Monday during Christmas break, the crowds of visitors.  With over 30 wineries on the Temecula Valley Wine Area (TVWA) trail, it was rare to see one without a nearly full tasting room.  Many of the wineries, particularly South Coast, Ponte and Avensole, rival the largest and most popular of Napa Valley, with huge open tasting rooms, impressive European architecture and stunning views of the vineyards and surrounding mountains.   A nice contrast to Napa is the great number of wineries with restaurants and cafes.   Convoluted Napa laws prevent most wineries there from serving real food, and it’s nice to be able to enjoy the Temecula scenery and wines with a meal.

After researching the many possibilities on the TVWA trail, I chose Hart and Monte de Oro to visit.  Hart Winery is small and family-run with a reputation for high-quality Mediterranean varietal wines, while Monte de Oro is a much larger operation which attracts vans and buses of groups for tastings.  While Monte de Oro wines were excellent, I found the ratio of tasting room staff to visitors to be too low.  We received little attention and almost no depth of knowledge about the wines or winemaking methods.   On the plus side, the server noted my wine style preferences and helpfully suggested the wines she thought I would most prefer.

First stop was Hart Winery, with my favorites described below:

  • 2016 Arneis.  I was surprised to find this little-known white from Piedmont region of Italy here.   Pale gold in color, with floral and peach aromas,  this was a delicious and refreshing light-bodied wine that bears a strong resemblence to Muscadet from the western Loire Valley.  A great start to the tasting! 8 out of 10
  • 2013 Mouvedre.  A staple of southern Rhone blends, Hart’s version was a light ruby in color, with a nice bouquet of dark berries.  Medium-plus in body, due to the 14.5% ABV.  Angular tannins on the lingering finish.  7.
  • 2014 Tres Hermanos.  A typical Rhone GSM blend (50% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 17% Mouvedre), pale purple in color, a light body and clear taste of fresh cherries.  Very soft tannins.  Delicious!  8.5

At Monte de Oro, after jostling my way through the crowds to a small open spot at the tasting bar, I was served 6 wines, highlighted by two interesting blends and a wonderfully frizzante white :

  • 2012 Congruity.  A deep cranberry in color with aromas of berry jam, this Zin-Syrah blend was fruit-forward with a soft tannin structure and spice on the finish.  Probably the first time I’ve tried a blend of Zinfandel and Syrah, and the fruit of the Zin balanced nicely with the spice and depth of the Syrah. 8.5
  • 2012 Synergy.  This is a blend of the original 5 grapes planted in Temecula – Syrah, Merlot, Cab Sauv, Zinfandel and Cab Franc.  Cassis, dark berries, black pepper and sweet smoke, this complex blend has a long, balanced finish.  9
  • 2014 Bolle de Oro.  Bright silvery straw color. Peach and guava on the nose with flavors of melon and pear, a light acidity and lively effervescence.  Off-off dry and refreshing.  At only ~$20 per bottle, I  rate this 9 out of 10.

Overall, I found a day in Temecula to be delightful, with a bustling and historic downtown, dozens of good restaurant choices, and tastings (and views) that rival the more famous wine country to the north.  Cheers!


Inwood Estates Winery – Texas Hill Country Wine at its Best

14 Nov

The best thing about the Texas Hill Country is probably the beauty of the surroundings.  One of the prettiest areas of Texas, there are rocky hillocks, pretty streams and rivers all amidst a rolling countryside studded with post oak and cedar.   The next best thing about hill country is probably the wine (although the great barbecue joints are, collectively, a strong runner-up)!   

The southernmost AVA (American Viticulture Area) and also one of the largest at over 14,000 square miles, the Texas Hill Country has been growing in popularity as well as in viticulture and oenology skills for almost 30 years.  Many of the wineries in the area also blend grapes from other regions in Texas (most notably the high plains) to attain brighter acidity and increased complexity.  Several wineries in the Fredericksburg area stand out for producing excellent Texas wines, and my favorites of those I have tried, are probably Rancho Ponte, Messina Hof, Grape Creek Vineyards, and Inwood Estates.  One of these, Inwood Estates (Inwoodwines.com) produces wine that is not only excellent by Texas standards, but is truly competitive with California as well as old world wines.  In fact, winemaker Dan Gatlin hosts “super tastings” where Inwood wines are comparatively tasted next to their equivalent old world examples.  Not just any examples, but the good stuff: a Premier Cru Chablis is tasted next to Inwood’s Chardonnay, for example.   

Inwood is somewhat of a pioneer in the area for growing and vinting Tempranillo, and this expertise shows in their Tempranillo varietal and blended wines.   During a tasting there yesterday, the friendly and professional tasting room host, Mary, provided us the 2012 Tempranillo which is an excellent equivalent to a Crianza from Rioja with the classic sour cherry fruit and a touch of spice.  When Mary learned that I was a Certified Specialist of Wine (Society of Wine Educators), she smiled and brought out a 2006 Reserve Tempranillo.  Wow!  I liked the young wine, but the aged (in French Oak) version was outstanding.  Soft tannins, earthiness and leather perfectly balance with the fruit.   Two other highlights of our tasting were a beautiful Margaux-style Bordeaux blend and a red dessert wine.  The Margaux style blend was not as restrained as the left bank examples but just as complex, with nice balance and medium long finish.   The “Rubyna” dessert wine is made in the Oporto style with Tempranillo and Cab Sauv fruit.  We simply had to buy some bottles of this – lush fruit, sweet without being syrupy, with a smooth finish; just a delightful sipping wine.

For anyone curious about new world wines outside of the typical California, South America or Australia standards, I highly recommend heading to the hill country of Texas.   And bring an appetite for barbecue – you won’t be disappointed.

#TexasWine, #TexasHillCountry