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Texas Winemakers Look To Take Category To The Next Level

September 7, 2018

Texas winemaking traces its roots to vineyards planted by Franciscan priests in the 17th century. But it wasn’t really until the 1970s when the state’s modern industry was born. Today, Texas has eight federally designated AVAs and more than 4,000 acres of bearing vineyards. Around 430 wineries are in operation, according to the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association (TWGGA), which reports that the Texas wine industry contributed $13 billion in total economic activity to the state last year.

Spec’s Wines, Spirits and Finer Foods operates 177 retail locations throughout Texas and has been a leading advocate for the state’s wine industry. The family-owned chain sells more than $4 million in Texas wine annually, with about 3% of its wine department made up of Texas labels. Sam Clark, a wine buyer for Spec’s who specializes in Texas, notes that while sweet wines have historically been the retailer’s biggest sellers in the category, new grape varietals are emerging. Among those growing in prominence are Tannat, Tempranillo, Viognier, and Malbec. “In terms of quality, Texas wine has changed tremendously in the past five or six years,” says Clark. “We’re starting to compete with other states.”

Following a model similar to that of a craft brewer, The Austin Winery has a full-production urban winery in the heart of the Lone Star State’s vibrant capital. Its wines include Calaveritas Malbec ($30 a 750-ml.); Work Horse, a blend of Merlot and Petit Verdot ($23); the Chenin Blanc and Viognier blend Friends With Benefits ($18); and Texas High Plains rosé ($24). When it was established in 2014, The Austin Winery used about 50% Texas-grown grapes, with the rest sourced from California, Oregon, and Washington. Four years later, it’s using about 90% Texas grapes. “We can now really do everything we want with Texas fruit,” explains co-founder Ross McLauchlan.

In 2008, winemaker Kim McPherson opened his West Texas winery in downtown Lubbock in honor of his father, Doc McPherson, a pioneer of the early Texas wine category: 40 years ago, Doc founded the Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock with partner Bob Reed, and it became one of the first post-Prohibition wineries in the state. “Farmers are finally coming around to planting lesser-known varieties that may be better suited to our climate and soil types—like Tannat, Picpoul, Marsanne, and Cinsault—rather than the big guns that consumers are more familiar with like Cabernet and Riesling,” Kim explains. “Those grapes don’t make the best wines here.”

The McPherson Cellars portfolio is led by its Sangiovese ($20), Viognier ($18), Roussanne ($18), and the Rhône blend Tre Colore ($18), with the dry Les Copains rosé ($18) also showing promise. Like most of the state’s wineries, distribution is focused primarily on the Texas market, but is slowly growing across state lines into areas like Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Iowa.

Hundreds of miles to the east, the Kuhlken family has been growing grapes in its Hill Country vineyard since 1995. In 2006, it launched its Pedernales Cellars label, which includes the Texas Hill Country Tempranillo ($40), Tempranillo Reserve ($60), Texas GSM Mélange ($35), and Viognier Reserve ($40). The wines are distributed to all major Texas markets, with a focus on the on-premise.—Kimberly Tharel

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