- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
Pedernales Cellars, off U.S. 290 on the the road to Fredericksburg, is now regarded as one of Texas’ best wineries — after establishing itself as an Old World-style winery focusing specifically on two grape varietals that do well in Texas, viognier and tempranillo.
But the owners, members of the Kuhlken-Osterberg family, wanted something a little different for their next project, a series of wines they created to be a more accessible, less serious collection that would allow winemaker David Kuhlken to branch out and have some extra fun. Along with his sister Julie and her husband, Fredrik Osterberg, he’s opened Armadillo’s Leap Winery as a cozy tasting room on prime real estate along one of the main Hill Country wine trails.
Although the Armadillo’s Leap label has been around for a few years, the tasting room is relatively new, converted out of the old Pink Pig Bakery & Cafe space that had been a popular wine country dining destination until it closed in 2013.
And it’s clear from the tasting room — decorated with colorful armadillo pictures and stacked tall with wine bottles containing names like the BFF Blend and WineWednesday — that wine drinking there is supposed to be a playful, light-hearted experience enjoyed with high-quality but less expensive vino.
“We like to give our wine blends fun names,” Julie Kuhlken says. “They signal to customers that you can have this wine any day of the week and don’t need to wait for a special occasion. That’s really what we’re going for here. Obviously we provide the other experience (with Pedernales) where you’re not just going to open a $50 bottle of wine for no reason. But you can open a $17 bottle of wine that way.”
Another main element to Armadillo’s Leap is that it offers a way for the Kuhlken-Osterberg clan to give back: $1 of every case sold at the tasting room is donated to a worthy cause, with one designated nonprofit each year. The winery’s charity program, Armadillo’s Leap Gives, plans to donate this year’s money to the Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center.
“When we would give, it began to feel so scattershot,” Kuhlken says. “So we set up Armadillo’s Leap to be completely focused on one organization every year.”
Helping with the cause is pretty easy — just show up, hang out in the beautiful outdoor patio space with a glass of wine and take a bottle home with you. (It’s the bottle that counts toward the Westcave donation.)
Currently, the tasting room is offering a sparkling moscato, a viognier-roussanne blend and a mourvedre, among other wines. And most of them, with the exception of the 2013 Viognier, aren’t wines that tradition-focused Pedernales Cellars would make. The mourvedre grape, for example, is often added to blends, rather than turned into wine on its own, because it can come out too tannic.
In Texas, however, “it has these lavender notes,” Kuhlken says. “But that fits locally. Lavender grows here, so the fact that floral lavender notes are present makes it seem particularly native. We make mourvedre as a single varietal wine at Armadillo’s Leap, while at Pedernales, it’s most often part of the GSM” (grenache-syrah-mourvedre).
The BFF Blend, a fruity, medium-bodied mix of montepulciano, aglianico and tempranillo, is particularly atypical — the Italian and Spanish grapes, Kuhlken says, “would have never run into each other” when Old World winemaking laws were established. “That’s a New World advantage, that we don’t have any such rules. We can do whatever lots Dave wants to play with.”
One day, he and Julie are hoping to offer a sparkling rosé, as well as a meaty malbec-tempranillo blend that will serve as Armadillo’s Leap’s full-bodied red.
In the more immediate future, look for three 2015 wines to hit the Armadillo’s Leap lineup: another viognier, a pinot grigio and another WineWednesday white blend of viognier, pinot grigio and muscat. The pinot grigio grape — which is spelled the Italian way in this case, instead of the French “pinot gris,” because the Texas climate more closely mimics that of the Mediterranean — was an adventure for Dave Kuhlken, who had never worked with it before.
“Armadillo’s Leap gives him a chance to experiment since Pedernales is pretty locked into what it does,” Julie Kuhlken says. “It specializes in tempranillo and viognier… We do a little bit of experimentation, but as Dave says, once you’re where you are with Pedernales, it gets more and more like you’re steering a tanker.”
The new whites will be available in July. Despite the raging summer heat, that’s still a good time to make a day trip to the tasting room and to Fredericksburg as a whole. You’ll want to sit out in the patio space — framed by thick mustang grapevines, with views of ponies, rolling hills and a large in-construction brewery spread out beyond — and feel instantly transported.
Plus, if you come on weekend mornings, Armadillo’s Leap will mix you up a wine-based brunch cocktail.
“When we first opened Pedernales, we thought about offering mimosas or sangria,” Kuhlken says with a smile. “But Dave put a stop to it. He was like, ‘After all that work I went through to get the blending just right, you’re going to add orange juice?!’”