There’s no sugar-coating it: it’s been a rough year for Texas wine. As I reported in September, late spring freezes wiped out grapes in the High Plains and the Hill Country, two of the dominant growing regions in the state. During harvest, winemakers knew the 2014 vintage would produce mixed results.
Despite the agricultural difficulties facing the wine industry over the past few years, I found that there will still a number of standouts being produced—especially among the reds. I tried more than one hundred red wines of different styles and grape varieties, narrowing down this extensive selection to the ten best, plus a few honorable mentions.
The whites, however, didn’t fare so well, no surprise considering that these grapes were the ones most affected by that late freeze. Because so much of the fruit died, winemakers were forced to buy their white grapes from other states, meaning their wines could not be labeled as Texas appellation wines—a distinction that requires more than 75 percent of the wine is produced using grapes grown in-state—and thus were ineligible for this evaluation.
If winemakers did manage to gather enough decent fruit to make a white wine, it was apparent they had to significantly manipulate the formulas to produce something worth bottling. Some takeaways from tasting the few whites that were available: Blanc du Bois, an American native grape, is well suited to Texas; Chenin Blanc has a lot better staying power than people give it credit for; and dry Muscat is a growing trend among local wineries.
Based on the whites tasted, only five were worth including on this list. As sad as that reality is, it allowed an opportunity to evaluate and feature five wines from a third category that is seeing growth in Texas: dry rosés.
For this year’s evaluation, I sampled more than 150 Texas wines from just over fifty wineries. (If this seems like a low count, it’s worth noting that while there are nearly 300 bonded wineries of record, not all of them are operating as wineries producing Texas appellation wines.) The sampled wines—which, again, I required be Texas appellation—were wrapped in tissue paper to hide the labels. Wines were stored at appropriate temperatures before tasting. After each round of wine was poured, they were evaluated based on standard tasting criteria modeled from the Court of Master Sommeliers: five points per category of nose, palate, structure, balance, and finish for a potential total score of 25. (Sommelier volunteers helped, but their scores were not considered as part of this list.)
Below, the twenty best Texas wines produced this year:
Best Texas Reds
Brennan Vineyards “W” Winemaker’s Choice, NV
Coming out of Comanche, Texas, the Brennan Vineyards “W” is a well-balanced red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Ruby Cabernet, Petite Syrah, and Cinsault. Winemaker Todd Webster’s wine shows dark fruit, cola, and hints of eucalyptus, and the obvious restraint on oak aging reveals a pronounced tannic grip. This is a big Texas wine with a lot to offer.
Duchman Family Vineyards Nero D’Avola, 2010
Bright blueberry tones. Coffee. Leather. Tart cherry. All these notes, plus the pronounced yet approachable tannins, make this one of the most impressive wines to come out of Duchman Family Vineyards. Which is saying a lot considering they already excel with grape varieties such as Montepulciano, Dolcetto, and Sangiovese. The only downside is that this is the last of its kind from the vineyard, a truly one-of-a-kind addition to this year-end list.
Fall Creek Vineyards GSM, 2012
This wine is a stunner. Undertones of blackberry, raspberry, and cranberry notes bolster earthy, gamey notes of mushroom, tobacco, and a little bit of smoke. This Fall Creek wine—a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre—received the highest score in the evaluation and could easily have been mistaken for a classic Northern Rhone Crozes-Hermitage, a high compliment to say the least. This is a great benchmark for Texas’s potential in the world of wine.
Landon Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, 2012
A pleasant surprise in the blind tasting, this opulent Cabernet with its grippy tannins and hints of green pepper reminded me of a classic California Cab. It’s even more giving on the palate than on the nose, making it a pleasure to drink. It seems this Reserve Cab was a hit among others too; it’s currently sold out. But owner Bob Landon plans to release another vintage soon.
McPherson Cellars Les Copains Red, 2012
Pretty and approachable with strawberry and raspberry notes and subtle yet elegant structure, this is a great wine to sip on through the summer, but its strength also holds up to heavier foods like grilled meats and barbecue. Those who prefer lighter wines will love it, while those who like a little more backbone in the glass won’t be disappointed.
Messina Hof GSM (Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvedre), NV
With hints of blackberry, dried fig, and violet, this wine was a happy find. From the diverse portfolio of Texas wines produced by Messina Hof, this rich blend of Grenache, Shiraz, and Mourvedre shows how precise and approachable this historic Texas winery can be.
Pedernales Cellars Texas Tempranillo, 2012
When it comes to Tempranillo, Pedernales continues to set the bar in Texas. A consistently good wine, this is one of the winery’s multiple offerings of Tempranillo, blending grapes from both the High Plains and the Hill Country. With notes of dark cherries, leather, dark chocolate, and dusty earth, this wine is both approachable and complex in structure.
Perissos Vineyards Petite Sirah, 2012
Fruit-forward notes of blackberries intermingle with savory, gamey qualities and oak, giving way to a smooth, lingering finish. Though the 14-plus alcohol content is a little high, the luscious fruit and balanced acid structure play well on the palate and make this a wonderful wine to enjoy with a nice Texas steak.
Spicewood Vineyards Estate Tempranillo, 2012
Made exclusively from Hill Country grapes grown on the estate vineyard in Spicewood, this wine offers a broader complexity and structure than many other Texas Tempranillos. A nod to great Spanish Rioja wines, there are notes of tart, sour cherry; tobacco; cocoa; and broken leather.
William Chris Vineyards Syrah, 2012
One of three red wines that scored well for William Chris, this Syrah barely edged out its sister wines, the 2012 Mourvedre and the 2012 Sangiovese. With its rich full body and alluring notes of black and blue fruit, leather, pepper, and ashy smoke, the Syrah’s grippy tannins show a melticulous restraint with its oak aging.
Alamosa Wine Cellars: El Guapo, 2012
Driftwood Estate Winery: Longhorn Red, 2012
Flat Creek Estates Winery: Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012
Ground Up Wines: Tempranillo, 2012
Hye Meadow Winery: Junkyard Red, 2012
Pilot Knob: Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012
William Chris Vineyards: Mourvedre, 2012, and Sangiovese, 2012
Best Texas Whites
Braman Wine Eaglefire Muscat Blanc
A real showstopper this year, the Eaglefire Muscat Blanc from Washington County is deceptively alluring. Its floral hints of orange blossom, honeysuckle, peach, and grapefruit lead you to believe it may be sweet, but the palate reveals an almost completely dry finish. This would pair well with spicy foods, like Tex-Mex and Thai.
Bullet Boys ’Stache, 2013
This collaborative project between three winemakers—Chris Brundrett of William Chris Vineyards, Rob Nida of Compass Rose Cellars, and Tim Drake of Flat Creek Estate—produced a wine that really showcases Blanc du Bois’s potential in Texas. The Bullet Boys take this grape, generally opulent, round, and with a musty reputation, and tease out its elegant floral and faint tropical notes. The bright, crisp palate makes this a wine that is both intriguing and inviting.
Haak Winery Dry Blanc du Bois, 2013
Many may not know that you can grow grapes near Galveston, but Raymond Haak does just that—and does it really well. For years, Haak Winery has been producing award-winning, Madeira-style dessert wines. But Haak also has a deft hand with Blanc du Bois. Notes of peaches and fresh lemon, along with a subtle florality, makes this a lovely everyday wine (especially for this price).
Lewis Wines Chenin Blanc, 2013
Many people overlook Chenin Blanc as being too sweet for their tastes, but Doug Lewis and Duncan McNabb of Lewis Wines bring us an example of why this grape should be taken seriously in Texas. It grows with better consistency here than most other varietals, and is often able to strike the right balance of ripeness and acidity that makes beautiful, crisp, dry wines that are perfect for enjoying with Gulf Coast seafood.
Llano Estacado 1836 White Wine, 2012
Often the first wine at a wine tasting can be a wild card, especially if your palate is not calibrated. But Llano Estacado’s 1836 set a high bar for us. With notes of peach, honeysuckle, and citrus peel, this blend of Roussanne and Viognier was on our minds throughout the entire tasting. Last year’s 1836 Red made the top list, and this year’s white counterpart is just as worthy.
Price: ~$39 (This wine is available only in select restaurants such as Stephan Pyles and Stampede in Dallas.)
Best Dry Rosés
Lewis Wines Rosé, 2013
For those who like good news first, this wine is an example of just how serious people should take rosé as a premier wine style for Texas. The food and weather here can be hot, and a Texan’s tongue longs for something cool and refreshing. But why should we have to give up red grapes? Thankfully for us, the structure of this wine—and most rosés—allows year-round enjoyment. Notes of strawberry, pomegranate, and white peach pervade while a bright, citrusy palate whets the appetite for savory fare. And now the bad news: having only produced 17 cases, this wine is completely sold out. Not to worry, though; owner Doug Lewis already has a substantial amount in tank for the 2014 vintage, which we can look forward to enjoying this spring.
Llano Estacado Mont Sec Grenache Rosé 2013
This Grenache has a broad palate, including notes of strawberry, watermelon, and orange blossom. The lingering dry finish also lends a refreshingly crisp acid structure that makes it a good pairing for food. This is yet another example of Llano Estacado’s ability to let the best of what Texas fruit has to offer to shine through in the glass.
Price: ~$35 (This wine is available only in select restaurants across the state.)
Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards Rosato, 2013
A happy find, this Rosato comes from a lesser known winery out of Pittsburg, Texas. Dry yet fruity, the wine is a blend of Zinfandel and Dolcetto from the Texas High Plains. It offers notes of black cherry and cranberry, with a floral on the nose and a crisp finish on the palate. Though not as widely distributed as some of the larger Texas producers, it’s a worthy companion to the stalwarts of the scene.
McPherson Cellars Les Copains Dry Rosé, 2013
A consistent leader among the many McPherson Cellars wine offerings, this rosé of Cinsault, Mourvedre, and Viognier appeals to a broad range of palates. Though vibrantly pink with notes of red berries and plums, this is a serious wine with herbal nuances and crisp acidity that pairs best with a thick, meaty burger right off the grill. And not only does it appeal to the palate, but at $14 a bottle, it’s appeals to the wallet as well.
Tatum Rosé, 2013
Another small-project wine, the Tatum Rosé is the creation of assistant winemaker Josh Fritsche and vineyard manager Matt Jaksik at William Chris Vineyards. Made of 60 percent Grenache and 40 percent Mourvedre from the Salt Lick Vineyards, this wine offers rustic, ripe berry notes and hints of fresh spring flowers. Though available only through the William Chris winery or in select retail outlets around Austin, the wine is not only a pleasure to drink, it’s also a sign of what we can expect from the next generation of Texas winemakers.