There was a time when I used to think wine tasting was a fun little exercise for the senses. In many ways it still is, but when your job is tasting wine for a living—and reporting on the very good, the good, the not-so-good, and the just plain ugly—this exercise can start to feel, well, just like exercise. Add in the fact that I’m sizing up a burgeoning wine region (Texas) against the heralded regions of the world (Napa, Sonoma, Bordeaux, Piedmont, Mosel, etc.), the responsibility can feel altogether overwhelming.
Daunting or not, in the four years we’ve been evaluating wines for this annual best Texas wines list, the state’s viticultural industry—and the grape growers who lead it—have been markedly improving. The Texas Hill Country has recently earned accolades from Wine Enthusiast and USA Today, reliably making lists that exalt it as one of the top wine destinations in the world. Texas wines from every local region also continue to win lots of shiny medals from national award competitions.
But it hasn’t been all roses (or rosés). Last year’s tasting revealed the reality of what Texas’ harsh climate can unleash upon vineyards across the state when weather conditions aren’t favorable, or, as Charles Dickens might say, when vines face the “worst of times.” But this year revealed a different story. Better weather provided a much-needed windfall from the 2015 harvest, resulting in a vintage that has winemakers giddy with glee over both they quantity and quality of fruit. Red wines continued to show strength, but where white wines struggled last year, we found many of them have bounced back with vibrancy and vigor. We also tasted some twenty dry rosé wines, a category in which Texas has grown in strength.
So while yes, we did taste some excellent wines from the state’s top producers, including a few pleasant surprises, this year’s tasting continues to confirm that Texas wines in general still have a steep hill to climb in terms of quality, consistency and completeness.
For this year’s evaluation, we sampled more than 120 Texas wines. (If this seems like a low count, it’s worth noting that while there are more than 300 bonded wineries of record, not all of them are operating as wineries producing Texas appellation wines.) The sampled wines—which I required be Texas appellation, a distinction that requires more than 75 percent of the wine is produced using grapes grown in-state—were wrapped in tissue paper to hide the labels and poured by volunteers. 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— including Master Sommeliers James Tidwell and June Rodil—helped, but their scores were not considered as part of this list.)
We also welcomed a special token this year to conclude our tasting. A 1990 Grape Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon that was a generous gift from Dallas’ Jim and Susan Hunt to one of our tasters, James Tidwell, a Master Sommelier with the Four Seasons Las Colinas Resort and Spa. And you read that vintage correctly; this is a 25-year-old Texas wine. While that age would be an infant among the world’s great wine producing regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Piedmont, it’s quite a benchmark for Texas.
And this was truly a benchmark wine. The cork was perfectly intact when we opened it, and after a few minutes in the glass, aromas of dried figs, dusty prunes, and savory herbs erupted with great power and depth. The flavors was no less impressive confirming the aromatics and transitioning into beautiful structure across the palate followed by a long, lingering finish. As June Rodil, another taster, put it, this wine is still very much alive.
“I love that it’s still vibrant with red and black fruit,” said Tidwell. “Its structure is starting to fade a little bit, but this wine is still holding on. A very impressive wine for any region of the world.”
An impressive wine, indeed. We finished every drop. It was a perfect way to end this year’s tasting, and a confirmation that when it comes to quality winemaking, Texas should be proud.
Below the twenty best wines produced this year:
Best Texas Reds
4.0 Cellars by Brennan Vineyards 2013 Mourvèdre
Produced by up-and-coming winemaker, Todd Webster, of Brennan Vineyards, for 4.0 Cellars in Fredericksburg, this beautiful red was a unanimous favorite from the entire tasting. A blend of 78 percent Mourvèdre and 22 percent Ruby Cabernet, this wine is a perfect match for braised short ribs or roasted prime rib. Alluring notes of sarsaparilla, smoked meats, and rich, raspberries and blackberries dance like dervishes in the glass revealing a deeply structured wine with ripe fruit and a kiss of earthiness.
Brennan Vineyards 2013 Tempranillo Reserve
Ripe red cherries and notes of smoked charcuterie meats dominate aromas framed by vanilla and pipe tobacco, making this a beautifully structured wine with rustic tannins that soften into a long finish. This Tempranillo could easily be a classic Rioja Reserva.
Duchman Family Winery Grape Grower’s Blend
In tribute to the many grape growers in the High Plains and the Hill Country that winemaker Dave Reilly relied on for his production, this blend includes just about every grape washed in the kitchen sink. And in this case, that’s a good thing. Pretty aromas of raspberry coulis, black tea, and toasted wood come together to reveal a big wine with black and blue fruit, grippy-yet-integrated tannin, and a long earth finish.
Duchman Family Winery 2012 Montepulciano Oswald Vineyard
A more medium- to fuller-bodied wine, Duchman’s single vineyard Montepulciano showcases Reilly’s abilities to coax out the the subtleties of this Italian varietal. Baked cherries and candied blackberries take center stage with basil and tobacco playing supporting roles. Tannins are woody, but not overbearing, and the finish is balanced with a touch of baking spice on the end.
Flat Creek Estate 2011 Syrah
One of the great red grapes of France’s Rhône Valley, Syrah is praised for producing dark, full-bodied wines that can make even Cabernet Sauvignon blush. This Texas example from Flat Creek Estate embodies all the high notes you’d expect from this grape. From blueberries and black olive, to smoked meats and black pepper, this is a steak wine, with a lingering finish that offers hints of plum and tobacco.
Grape Creek Vineyards 2013 Rendezvous
Light and fruity, this Rhône blend includes Mourvédre, Cinsault, Carignane, Syrah, and Voignier. In the glass, hints of cherries and a backyard smoker mingle with savory herbs and red floral undertones. Offering great balance and bright acidity, this wine begs for charcuterie or baby back ribs, but could easily be a back porch sipper shared with friends.
Lost Draw Cellars 2013 Sangiovese
A particularly happy find from noted High Plains grape grower, Andy Timmons and his winery’s partnership with Fredericksurg-area Troy Ottmers and Andrew Sides. Aromas of lavender, ripe cherries and graham cracker crumbs offer an inviting introduction to this wine. On the palate, well integrated tannins intermingle with pleasantly tart red fruit and leave a warm, lingering finish.
Stone House Vineyards 2013 Claros
This small winery near Spicewood is run by Angela Moensch, an Australian native who sources many of the winery’s grapes from her home in the Barossa Valley, and her husband Howard. A departure from many Texas wines, this opulent red is made from estate-grown Norton grapes, an American varietal grown largely in Missouri and Virginia. With deep hues of purple, this wine is almost black in color with notes of Christmas spices and dried figs. Big and opulent, the fruit binds together beautifully with well integrated tannins into a wine that is both balanced and intriguing. A perfect wine for holiday pairing.
William Chris Vineyards Texas Mourvèdre
This wine is a testament to the strength of Mourvèdre, a French Rhône varietal, and its promise as a champion grape for Texas. A perfect everyday red, this wine offers notes of tart cranberry, plum, brambly blackberry, and crushed rose petals layered with sautéed mushroom, fresh tobacco, and dusty red earth. A great option for barbecue and grilled meats, but just as good with braised pork or poultry.
Calais Winery 2014 Cuvée de Gaston Dry Rosé
Calais is one of the newest wineries along the U.S. Highway 290 wine trail, though it’s certainly not one of the newest to the craft. Ben Calais, a French native, has been making wine in Texas for eight years, but he recently moved his operations from Dallas to the scenic Hill Country. Known for using minimal winemaking techniques and native yeasts to develop his wines, Calais has made a name for himself by making wines as French as the blood running through his veins. This rosé is no exception. A blend of Mourvèdre and Cinsault, this lovely wine has a pale rose hue and a nose of sweet berries and fresh daisies that reveal a delicate palate with a hint of sweet tarts.
Lost Draw Cellars 2014 Arroyo Rosé
If only all wines could be this easy. Brimming with raspberries, strawberries, lime, and a touch of lemon cream, this wine is as welcoming on the nose as it is on the palate. A true friend to all, its quaffable appeal is the sort that prompts a celebratory call for “rosé all day.”
Spicewood Vineyards Mourvèdre Rosé
Spicewood has spent the past few years honing its precision in winemaking, and this wine is evidence of that hard work. Barely blushed, this elegant rosé offers faint notes of strawberry and tropical fruit that follows with light florality on the palate and bright lemon zest on the finish. With a fresh vibrancy, the rich fruit mingles with bright acidity giving the wine an alluring persistency.
Bingham Family Vineyards 2014 Cloudburst
From one of the state’s largest grape growers, the Bingham Family has supplied many of Texas’ top wineries with grapes for more than ten years. This year, they turned their attention towards winemaking as well. This happy blend of their most notable white grapes includes Trebbiano, Vermentino, Roussanne, Chardonnay, and Viognier. Aromas of green apple and lemon zest lead while a bright minerality pervades.
Flat Creek Estate 2014 Blanc du Bois
One of the favorite white wines for this tasting, this wine combines balance, clean fruit, and a refreshing finish into one glass. Made from 100-percent Blanc du Bois, a hybrid grape variety that thrives in East Texas, winemaker Tim Drake has produced an elegant wine with aromas of juicy lemon, ripe pear, and melon that offers vibrancy with a bright citrus finish. An excellent wine to pair for lighter foods or simply to enjoy on the back patio.
Lewis Wines 2014 White Wine Blend
An elegant wine from winemakers Doug Lewis and Duncan McNabb, this blend of Roussanne, Blanc du Bois, and Viognier makes for a fragrant and enticing beverage. Pretty aromas of white peach, melon, and white flowers, leads to a refreshing palate and a warm, friendly partnership with grilled fish or poultry, or simply with a cheese plate and dried apricots.
Majek Vineyards 2014 Blanc du Bois
A happy find this year from relative newcomer Majek Vineyards from Schulenberg, this pretty little Blanc du Bois is like the sweet little sister to Flat Creek’s version of the same grape. And it’s true that this little number is a tad sweet—but not at all off-putting. Aromas of dainty white flowers and juicy lemon dusted with confectioner’s sugar best describe this wine. On the palate, while there is certainly an off-dry (sweet) character, the bright acidity and complete structure make this wine a refreshing surprise.
Perissos Vineyards 2014 Viognier
Grown entirely on the Colorado River Valley estate, this Viognier from Perissos Vineyards bears a striking resemblance to the great Condrieu wines of the Northern Rhône Valley. Offering rich aromas of ripe peach, honeysuckle, and baked pear, this wine is balanced with a lingering acidity that stands up to its medium-weight body. If winemaker Seth Martin was looking for making a varietally correct wine, he passes the test with flying colors—and gains extra points for a simply delicious wine.
Wedding Oak Winery 2014 TreV
From winemaker Penny Adams out in San Saba at the upper part of the Hill Country, this delicious wine is a blend of three top white grapes for Texas that all begin with the letter “v:” Viognier, Verdehlo, and Vermentino. Though all originally from France, Portugal, and Italy, respectively, each of these grapes combine their individual strengths into one powerfully enchanting white wine. Tart green apple, ripe citrus, fragrant yellow flowers, and a hint of golden raisins come together in the glass with beautiful balance and vibrant structure. A true gem.
Six of these wines will be included in the TM Wine Club’s December shipment. Learn more about how to get the best Texas wines delivered to your door. Order by December 11, 2015, and you’ll receive your shipment by December 25.