Branch out and try some lesser-known Texas wines

12:00 a.m. Tuesday, March 22, 2016 Austin360 Eats

In Texas, the high heat of our spring and summer has forged the identity of our wine.

Winemakers here know, after years of toil, that they want nothing to do with the wines California popularized: the chardonnays, the merlots, the cabernet sauvignons. Easily recognizable and often sought out, they’ve turned Napa Valley and the West Coast’s other winemaking regions into a veritable powerhouse — one that many wine producers try to emulate.

But that’s not an option for us.

Our hot climate doesn’t suit the temperament of those grapes, which prefer the cooler California weather. Instead, Texas winemakers have been turning to grape varietals grown in the arid Mediterranean, such as vermentino, montepulciano and tempranillo. From places like Spain, Italy and the south of France, they thrive in Texas but aren’t as well-known as their other French and Californian counterparts.

“We call our viognier the chardonnay of Texas,” Pat Brennan, co-owner of Brennan Vineyards in Comanche, says of the winery’s signature wine.

Although many of the state’s wine fans now recognize these names, Texas winemakers are seeking even greater public familiarity — now that they’ve brought increased prestige over the past few years to the region as a whole.

Seeking the advice of knowledgeable sommeliers like Lindsay Drew, who cultivates the wine list at Lonesome Dove, certainly helps. “The one thing I emphasize when people are hesitant about Texas wine or ask about a weird grape like tannat is that we get to play with more interesting grapes, more nerdy grapes, as I like to call them,” she says. “Grapes like the sangiovese that Duchman is doing that’s just fantastic.”

Reading up on them is also beneficial. To that end, here’s a guide that will help you find the right Texas wine based on your preferences for some of the more popular wines out there.

As Brennan notes, the Rhone varietal that has found such a welcoming home at Brennan Vineyards has similar tasting notes to chardonnay: In the Hill Country, where the grape tends to ripen more than in the Texas High Plains, it’s very aromatic, “with a lot of white peach and apricot and some citrus,” Brennan says.

Other local producers who have had success with it include Becker Vineyards and Pedernales Cellars, whose Viognier Reserve is aged briefly in new French oak barrels to bring out flavors of vanilla, butter and toast.

When Texas winemakers talk about the grape varietal that will ultimately define the state, becoming the most dominantly planted here, they’re generally split between two robust reds: tannat and tempranillo.

Bending Branch Winery in Comfort believes that tannat, originally grown in southwestern France, has a lot of promise because of how well it grows in Texas, “where it yield grippy tannins and a spiciness,” Bending Branch’s director of marketing, Jennifer McInnis Fadel, says. “It’s a natural progression for people, such as cabernet drinkers, who like a big, bold, dry red wine.”

The majority of people in the industry, however, have fallen in love with the Spanish grape tempranillo — perhaps none more so than Pedernales Cellars and Spicewood Vineyards.

“I’d argue it’s the red grape of Texas,” Spicewood Vineyards owner Ron Yates says. “Tempranillo makes a very different wine from region to region. Napa cabernet is made to be generally the same all over Napa Valley, but that’s what’s really cool about tempranillo. It’s made in a few different regions of Texas, and each of those locations really yields a unique grape.”

In the Hill Country, he says, it’s a heavier wine, with “darker, deeper flavors and a more tannic structure.”

At Pedernales Cellars, the grape is so integral to the wine program that the winery’s website keeps it on a page separate from the rest of the red wines. “Our philosophy is, if we grow the right grapes, we will make world-class wines. Tempranillo is one of those grapes,” Fredrik Osterberg, president of Pedernales, says.

Pinot grigio, a lighter-bodied fresh white wine, might have originated in France, but it found global fame largely through the influence of Italy. And it’s comparable to another Italian grape that flourishes in Texas: trebbiano. One of the Hill Country wineries that focuses on Italian varietals, Mike Batek’s Hye Meadow Winery in Hye, makes trebbiano “as our fun white,” he says. “It’s very crisp and refreshing; it really pairs well with our weather and what we do here with food.”

One of the most familiar wines around the world — merlot, lush and velvety with dark berry notes — is comparable to two Italian wines that are among the least recognized.

Brennan Vineyards makes nero d’avola, a Sicilian grape grown in very few places in the U.S. Brennan decided to pursue it, despite its obscurity, because he and his wife remembered it “as a fabulous wine during a trip to Sicily about 12 years ago,” he says. It’s proved to be just as good here: “fairly fruit-forward but with Old World characteristics, too. Cigar box and chocolate flavors are layered with cherry, tart strawberry.”

Note that if you try it at the winery or at a restaurant, it’ll come in a bottle with the name ‘Super Nero,’ not nero d’avola, since the varietal is so unknown. “The label sort of looks like Superman pulling back his shirt, and instead of an ‘S’ on his chest, there’s a grape leaf,” Brennan says.

The blackberry-rich montepulciano — another mouthful affectionally shortened to monte — is one of Duchman Family Winery’s top-sellers in its Italian-focused lineup, according to the winery’s general manager, Jeff Ogle. “It’s been a blockbuster wine for us, with a similar palate to California-style wines,” he says.

A seductive grape like pinot noir is going to need an equally disarming counterpart in Texas vineyards, and Batek thinks he’s found one with dolcetto, a black grape from Italy whose name means “little sweet one” — not because the wine is sweet, but because “the aromatics are just gravy,” he says. “With ours, there is some barrel influence, but we’re really wanting to get the wine to shine through so the fruit and the nose take center stage.”

But Hye Meadow Winery isn’t the only producer of this increasingly beloved grape. Duchman also makes one with plum notes and a balanced acidity, as does Flat Creek Estate in Marble Falls.

“Italian grapes are our sweet spot,” Batek says. “And we’re not the only ones.”

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