Menu of Menus Houston Press — Spring 2011
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Robb Walsh

If you haven’t had a glass of Texas Viognier yet, put it on your “to drink” list. It’s a lovely white wine with huge fl oral aromas and fl avors reminiscent of apricot and peach. Texas wineries make some of the best Viogniers in the world. I never thought I’d be calling Texas wines the best in the world, but it looks like the “Judgment of Texas” has arrived.

In a 1976 blind tasting conducted by French tasters, now famously known as the “Judgment of Paris,” California Cabs and Chards beat the best wines in France. The California red wines that won the taste test included Stag’s Leap, Heitz (Martha’s Vineyard), Ridge and Clos du Val. They were inexpensive wines at the time — most of them now sell for a hundred dollars or more a bottle. They beat Château Montrose, Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion, among others.

The tasting was repeated several times over the years with the same wines and results. The Judgment of Paris put the New World wine industry on the map and forced French winemakers to get off their complacent arses. It was also the subject of the 2008 movie Bottle Shock.

When I started covering the Texas wine industry in the early 1990s, there were a whole lot of fairs and festivals to support the local winemakers. There weren’t a lot of blind tastings at these events, and for good reason. The wines suffered by comparison. I was among the skeptics who wrote critically about Texas wines, and I got a lot of fl ak for it.

When Texas wines start beating European wines in blind tastings, I will become a cheerleader for the Texas wine biz, I once told a winery owner.

The tide began to turn a decade or so ago as Texas vineyards started experimenting. My “Judgment of Texas” moment came on a Saturday afternoon in late April of 2007. At the Buffalo Gap Wine and Food Summit that year, I was a panelist for the Texas vs. The World Wine Tasting. Austin wine writer Wes Marshall put on the blind tasting. I love his style — he used Brown paper bags to disguise the bottles.

There were several early wins for the Texas wines, but the fi reworks didn’t get started until the Viognier fl ight. Marshall had convinced the organizers to buy some very expensive and highly allocated Condrieu from France, considered by most experts to be the best Viognier in the world. Everybody at the table was gobsmacked when the three Texas Viogniers in the four-bottle fl ight (Becker, Brennan and McPherson) all beat the Condrieu.

For years, viticultural experts had been telling the Texas wine industry to stop planting Cabernet and Chardonnay and experiment with grapes from the warmer climates of Southern France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, and at long last, here was the result. The state’s wine industry was moving in the right direction. But I wasn’t completely convinced. I had to wonder: Was this just a freak? Had the French wine been badly stored or mishandled in shipping?

But while I was writing the Obscure Wine Grape series for the EOW blog, I had wine after wine grown from grape varieties that have only recently begun to thrive here. Alamosa Wine Cellars in San Saba County started growing Viognier, then planted Italian Sangiovese and Spanish Tempranillo. And all of their wines were remarkable.

Duchman Family Winery (formerly Mandola Winery) in Spicewood devoted itself to Italian grapes. The winery makes red wines like Montepulciano and whites like Vermentino that rival the Old World originals. The white Rhone variety called Roussanne is being produced in small quantities by several vineyards in Texas.

At the top end, tiny wineries like Sandstone Cellars near Mason are making some meritage blends and dessert wines that are off the charts. There are also many exceptional Texas wines produced in minuscule amounts by wineries like La Cruz de Comal and Dickson, but sadly you and I are unlikely to ever taste them.

But that doesn’t mean the changes in the Texas wine industry aren’t affecting the low end. While I was stocking up at Costco the other day, I skipped over the Argentine Malbec in favor of Becker Iconoclast Cabernet — it was a much better bargain. I usually buy a lot of French Côtes du Rhône because it’s such a good deal. So I was startled when I tasted Llano Estacado’s Mediterranean Blend — a wine that contains the same fi ve grapes found in nearly every Côtes du Rhône — Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, Carignane and Viognier. Llano Estacado’s award-winning “Texas Rhône” wine was as good as a lot of the French stuff, and it was selling for nearly half the price.

Messina Hof in Bryan got it right a long time ago. Their fl owery and slightly sweet Muscat Canelli is an excellent aperitif, and their port is outstanding. They also make some amazing Texas Zinfandel.

I asked one of my favorite sommeliers, Antonio Gianola, formerly of Catalan and now at work on his own wine bar, if he had any advice for the Texas wine industry.

“Focus on Texas fruit and leave the California grape juice in California,” he said. He was talking about the wineries that are importing grape juice.

The best Texas wineries are fi nally making great wines with grapes well-suited to our climate. But quite a few small wineries are trucking California grape juice across the country, fermenting it and slapping a Texas winery label on the result. Mainly, they are producing wines for the tourist trade.

It takes a lot of dedication and years of hard work to start from scratch with a grape that’s never been grown in Texas before. These vineyards and wineries are shaping the Texas wine business, making an investment in the future. Thanks to them, ten years from now Texas will be producing more and more wines that beat their European counterparts in blind tastings.