What We’re Tasting Podcast: Exploring Texas Wines from High Plains to Hill Country | Wine Enthusiast
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What We’re Tasting Podcast: Exploring Texas Wines from High Plains to Hill Country

While the East and West Coast get the lion’s share of attention, it’s time to focus Texas. It’s an exciting time to be making, and drinking, wines from the state. Explore the landscape, get to know the grapes, and find out which local bottles pair best with barbecue.

The wines discussed in this episode are:

 @4:50 Llano Estacado 2017 Signature Rosé (Texas)

@18:18 Haak 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Texas High Plains)

@17:18 Messina Hof 2014 Paulo Limited Edition Red (Texas)



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Read the full transcript of “Exploring Texas from the High Plains to Hill Country”:

Jameson Fink: Welcome to Wine Enthusiast’s What We’re Tasting Podcast. I’m your host, Jameson Fink. Join me as we discuss three fantastic wines and why each one belongs in your glass. This episode, we’re looking at wines from Texas, with Assistant Tasting Director Fiona Adams, who covers and reviews wines from the region.

What We’re Tasting is sponsored by Vivino. With the largest online inventory, Vivino finds the right wine every time. Even wines from Texas, which you do want to mess with. Download Vivino to discover and find your favorites, and stock up at Vivino.com/wineenthusiast.

When I think about wine in the United States, of course the West Coast comes to mind probably first. Definitely first. California, Washington, Oregon. Then, of course, being in New York, and spending a lot more time living here on the East Coast, I’m getting more into New York wines, and trying things from Vermont and Virginia, of course.

But a area I really know very little about wine-wise is Texas. I’m really excited to have you here on the show, Fiona, and give me a education in Texas wine. Welcome to the show.

Fiona Adams: Thank you for having me.

JF: The first thing I want to know is where are they making wine in Texas? How many wine regions are there? What’s going on?

FA: There are a handful of wine regions, but the two main ones, where they’re doing most of the grape growing, a lot of the wineries are based there, are in Texas Hill Country, which Fredericksburg is the main town there. It’s just outside of Austin and San Antonio. A little bit more to do.

Then in West Texas, we’ve got the High Plains. So Lubbock, Odessa area. That’s where they’re doing most of the grape growing. It’s really flat. Just a lot more space to work with. Most of the cotton grown in the United States is also grown there, so maybe grapes will edge them out.

JF: Or stock up on your white t-shirts and get some wine.

FA: Yeah, exactly. You can just … disposable white t-shirts, with all the red wine they’re making.

JF: What are the main grapes they’re growing, red and white?

FA: They do a lot of pretty much everything there. I’d say the main standout red grape that’s really emerging as Texas’s signature is Tempranillo. A lot of different people are making it. It’s pretty interesting.

Then, in the whites, it’s a lot of mix of just warmer weather white grapes. A lot of Rhône grapes, Roussannes, Marsannes. They’ve got Albariños, Chenin blancs, and your classic Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, so they’re really still in the experimentation phase in finding their true signature grapes, but it leads to a lot of different, interesting wines in a whole bunch of different styles.

JF: Usually, I don’t like to say like, “Oh, is this region like this?” I like to judge things on their own merits, but just, if you’re not familiar with Texas, if you like these kinds of wines, it might remind you of this, or the land might remind you of that? Is it unique, as far as geographic weather, or …

FA: The weather? I mean, it’s Texas, so it’s hot. You should expect some fuller-body wines. Wines with a little bit more alcohol. Wines that are just a little bit fuller in character. A little heartier. But they have a lot of talented winemakers who are making things that are really elegant and lighter-bodied, as well.

It might be really hot there in the summer, but they also get really cold there, which not a lot of people know. It’s pretty decent elevation. Winters get pretty cool. They’ve got a really great temperature change, day to night, out in the High Plains. Hill Country is a little bit more what you would expect. Pretty humid, pretty hot, but not as much grape production is going on there.

JF: What’s the elevation, in … As far as it goes?

FA: It’s high.

JF: Yeah, it’s high.

FA: Not as high as New Mexico, but higher than most places. Higher than you would expect.

JF: High enough to get a diurnal shift, dare we say?

FA: Oh, yeah. I mean, Texas … The big joke about Texas is, depending on what part of the state, the season can change. You could have winter in the northern part, and it be a snowstorm, and then go further south, and it’s 100-degrees, and 1,000% humidity, and chilling at a beach. You get a little bit of everything.

JF: Yeah. One of the scariest snowstorms I ever drove through was in Texas.

FA: People don’t think about snow when it comes to Texas, but they’ve got plenty of weather.

JF: Yeah. Well, speaking of weather, it’s right now, here in New York and all over the country, it’s a prime rosé drinking season, so actually the first wine I want to talk about from Texas is a rosé. It’s the Llano Estacado 2017 Signature Rosé. 89 points, best buy. Can you tell me a little bit about this wine as far as what’s in it, and what it tastes like?

FA: It’s a really tasty rosé. It’s definitely got that lighter, Provençal color going on. Really pretty, like those classic strawberry and fruit flavors. Then the blend has got some more of those Rhône grapes that are doing really well there. I believe it’s Cinsault, and …

JF: Carignan, Mourvèdre, and Grenache. I have it in front of me.

FA: There you go. So more like a classic Rhône blend, but they’ve been able to keep it really refreshing, and pretty, and all of those things that people are really looking for in their rosés right now. It’s just … I mean, it’s a great price. It’s great wine.

JF: Are you seeing a lot of dry rosés like this from Texas?

FA: Oh, yeah. They do a ton of dry rosé there. There’s been a handful of producers that are canning their rosé. I mean, it is hot in the summer there. You want to sit outside, and drink rosé, and hang out. There’s, I mean, a huge variety. I mean, they are definitely doing a lot more of those Rhône grape blends for their rosés, but you can find a few of those Cabernet Sauvignon ones. It’s going to be a little bit fuller than a Provençal-style, but I wouldn’t go into saying it’s dark rosé, that you need food. It’s that really light, approachable style.

JF: It reminds me of, I mean, I was just talking with Sean Sullivan about Washington State and Eastern Washington. I mean, it’s really hot out there, and it’s very deserty, but you get these … You can still … I mean, it’s just like Provence. It’s hot, but you produce these wines from grapes that make these thirst-slaking wines that you want to drink in the heat of the summer.

FA: And they’ve got canned rosé. Who doesn’t want canned rosé?

JF: I want canned rosé!

FA: There’s a couple of cool producers who are making these canned rosés. Messina Hof, who we’ll talk about later. They do a canned rosé that’s really tasty. There’s a few other guys who are doing it, as well. Then Lewis Cellars makes a ton of rosé that’s all Rhône-varieties. They’re just so pretty, and so delicious. He’s really starting to master making those very light, refreshing, expressive wines with these grapes that can get insanely ripe in that heat.

JF:: Yeah, and I think you mentioned canned wines, and I think … People talk, “Oh, is it a fad, or a trend?” I mean, I think it’s here to stay. We’ve gone past that. I think we’re going to see more and more of canned wine.

FA: If you can can beer, why can’t you can wine?

JF: I agree. I tend to like … I mean, you can get a 12-ounce can. To me, it’s like, “Okay, great. There’s two glasses in there.” Or I actually like better the … I like the little Red Bull-sized, or what are those … 250-milliliters. More like single-serving wines.

FA: Exactly. If you’re having a barbecue or something, that small can … Or going to the beach. Sitting by the pool. You don’t want to deal with glasses and bottles. I mean, there’s all those products that you can buy, but it’s way easier to … you throw in your six-pack of beer, and you throw in your six-pack of wine, and you’re ready to go.

JF: That’s right. They can live in the same cooler.

FA: Exactly.

JF: That’s great. The second wine … We’re going to move into red wine territory. It’s from the Texas High Plains. It’s the Haak 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon. 88 points. What is a Texas Cabernet like?

FA: Texas Cabernet … I mean, they’re hitting all of those checkboxes that die-hard Cabernet Sauvignon-lovers really want. It’s going to be fuller-bodied. They’ve got all that great tannin and structure. Some of those classic tobacco and leathery flavors. Then, because the fruit gets so ripe down there, they get really punchy red berries in there. All of their reds, really. It’s just like … You get all of those nice flavors, and structure, and support from the oak aging, but you’re not overwhelming the fruit flavors, because they are just naturally so intense.

JF: Is it too corny for me to say, like, these are great wines to have with brisket or Texas barbecue?

FA: Texas barbecue! Absolutely. Brisket’s big down there, and delicious. I mean, depending on who you talk to, they’ll tell you 10 or 12 different barbecue places that you have to go to. I agree. You have to go to get them. It pairs well with … Yeah. Those really classic Texas portions. Your big meat. You’ve got your cornbread, your potato salad. All the classic sides, and the wines just seamlessly pair with that traditional flavor.

JF: So if you’re visiting Hill Country, you can just do a pretty epic day or week of barbecue and wine tasting?

FA: Absolutely. Especially with Hill Country being so close to Austin, which has some seriously famous barbecue places. I’m a Salt Lick person. That’s my favorite. Come at me.

JF: I can’t. I haven’t been there, so … Shamefully.

FA: You’re also close to San Antonio, which has an insane amount of restaurants. You can, easy enough, fly in there. Rent a car, and in a couple of hours, you’re in wine country with just as many great restaurants. A ton of different wineries you can visit. They’ve got their own wine trail happening in Hill Country, so you can really have that experience that Napa or New York has really developed, where, oh, you come here, and this is a wine trail, and everything is geared around that.

JF: I think people are like, “Look, I’ll get on a plane right now and go to Napa,” or Sonoma, or really anywhere. But I think people are looking for those kinds of destinations, too, that are a little off-beat. People, like I said, love to go to Austin, or San Antonio, and like to be able to visit a unique wine country that’s maybe unexpected. I think that’s kind of the next step, is like, “Oh! I’m going to think about Texas, and I’ll think of wine.” Or “I’ll think of tasting wine.” Or buying wine, buying local wine. I think that’s pretty exciting, too.

JF: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Napa is, sure, the American wine destination for a lot of people. It’s the first one that pops into their head. But it’s really crowded. It’s really expensive. And you can get a similar vibe and experience in Texas that you can in Napa, because you’ve got great restaurants. You’ve got a great place to stay. Great shopping. They’ve also got horses and Texas stuff that’s way cooler.

Hey, we’ll be back to the show very shortly. But since you’re here, I know you’re already a fan of wine podcasts. Why don’t you check out our other show, called The Wine Enthusiast Podcast. Download it wherever you get podcasts.

Okay. I want to get a little controversial. Bring up a controversial issue. One is that … Well, not one. The issue, to me, is that there are a lot of wines made in Texas that are made from grapes imported from California. I’m wondering, when you look at a label, how do you know … It can say “Texas” on the label, but the grapes can be imported from California. How prevalent is this, and what is your take on that?

FA: There is a big divide there about buying grapes from a different state, and slapping on your label, “Made in Texas.” There’s been a huge push. There’s a lot of young winemakers who are really making some excellent wines who are saying, “Hey, if I wanted to make California wine, I would make it in California. But I’m in Texas. I’m from Texas. I grew up here. I’ve been farming these grapes for my whole life.”

It’s really a big push for that sense of pride of place. That “This is Texas wine. This isn’t California wine. We grow our grapes. We have our own industry. We can beat them. Our wines are just as good. Some of our wines are better.” It’s just a different experience.

I mean, buying grapes from other wine regions is a common occurrence in some lesser-known states that, maybe they don’t have the infrastructure. Maybe there are certain grapes that winemakers want to experiment with, but they just can’t grow in their climates.

I mean, that’s one way to go, and if you’re making beautiful wine, I’m not going to be that mad at you. But especially when you consider sustainability and the environmental impact of trucking grapes from a different state, to ferment it, and then to say that your wine is from Texas? It’s like, yeah, you might have made it there, but it’s not the same.

JF: I mean, I think the whole idea is like local food, and local wine, and when you visit a place, you want to have a literal taste of the place. I mean, I’m certainly … Look, I’m saying this as some dude sitting on a couch in a Manhattan studio, but if I owned a business, and … there just aren’t enough grapes, for one thing, was [inaudible 00:14:16] be the problem.

I’m sure they’re planning a lot more. There’s just not enough grapes to meet demand. But I just think there has to be some kind of transparency in labeling. That’s something that I don’t know that much about as far as how labeling doesn’t say, like, “22% of these grapes came from California.” Or how that’s-

FA: They’re really working on changing the labeling laws, and making sure that people know exactly where their grapes are coming from. That’s a big push in a lot of states, as well, where there’s … When the local wine industry grows, you want to have that stamp on your wines that this is a local wine, and not a wine where the grapes are coming from someplace else.

But as you mentioned, there are issues where you run into with bad harvests, or the demand for Texas wine is going up. They drink so much wine in Texas. You want to keep up with production, so if you are not able to get in all of the grapes that you need to produce the amount of wine that you want to make or sell, and they buy other grapes … It’s just like, “All right, that can be a short-term Bandaid.”

But there has been a lot more planting. There’s a lot of investment in growing more wine. Like I said, in the High Plains, they can push out the cotton industry, as far as I’m concerned. They’ve got excellent soil. It takes less water to grow grapes than it does cotton, and they’re harvesting really quality fruit.

JF: Yeah, and I think that maybe the thing to do is when you visit, or anyone visits, is to ask questions. Just be like, “Here’s our Cabernet.” “Where do you get the grapes from?” That’s not accusatory. And say, “Are you trying to move away from importing grapes, and having more Texas grapes? Are you planting? Are you buying? Are you working with vineyards that are growing?”

I just think, as a wine drinker, when you’re visiting, ask these questions, and get to know … Just like you would ask about any other wines when you’re visiting a wine region, and listen to what these winemakers are saying. Or these business owners, too.

Because like I said, it’s easy for me to complain. Like, “Well, why would you make any … Why don’t you stop making wine when you run out of grapes?” And like, “If your livelihood and business … Maybe five years down the road, or 10 years down the road, plantings will increase and then you won’t need to be reliant on that.”

I think also, as people are more into local wine everywhere … I mean, just demand that. Demand that they move towards sourcing grapes from local vineyards, or vineyards in the state.

FA: Texas is a great place to visit for that. Most of the wineries have tasting rooms. They have great staff who are willing to tell you about the wines that you’re trying, and tell you where they were planted. It’s like, “Oh, yeah. These grapes? If you drive five miles down that road, you can go look at these vines.” They’ve got a fair amount of ability to handle tourists and really educate wine drinkers. It’s definitely worth the visit.

JF: Absolutely. The third wine we want to talk about is Messina Hof 2014 Paulo Limited Edition Red. 89 points. It’s a Merlot blend. 60% Merlot, 27% Tempranillo, 13% Cabernet. I know you just tasted a bunch of Tempranillos from Texas. Can you talk about Tempranillo in Texas, and how … Is that the grape to hitch your wagon to?

FA: Tempranillo is definitely something that’s becoming really popular there. I mean, they’ve got the right climate for it. If you think about … Tempranillo, it’s Rioja’s grape. It’s another place where it is hot there. It is flat. It has got not an entirely similar climate, but they’ve really been able to take those grapes and bring them to Texas and make their own style on it. I mean, they don’t taste like Riojas. They are their own stamp on it.

I mean, they do have similarities to Rioja, but I think you get a nice range of styles that you couldn’t find someplace else, and just great fruit flavors. A lot of the winemakers are pretty restrained in their use of oak, so you get some really pretty fruit flavors that will go with a lot of different foods. If you don’t want something that’s a big, heavy Gran Reserva, and you want a Tempranillo, I mean, Texas … There’s a lot of great value there. The vines really seem to have taken to the soils and the climates there, and it really looks like that’s where they’re headed.

JF: I thought it was also cool about Messina Hof, is that it was founded in 1977. I mean, I think it was maybe the fourth winery in Texas. I didn’t realize that the history goes back that far.

FA: Oh, yeah. Texas? They’ve been making wine for a really long time. They used to grow grapes and sell them to California winemakers. Messina Hof’s been around for a while, and they definitely have proved themselves as very capable of making excellent wines, and have really embraced the family wine tradition in Texas in creating a lasting industry.

JF: I also was, when I was looking at their lineup of wines, they have an Estate Sagrantino, which I thought was really cool and unusual.

FA: It’s delicious.

JF: I think that’s … It reminds me of when I was in Australia, in the McLaren Vale … That was kind of lame of me to just brag about that, but you know what I mean-

FA: “When I was in Australia.”

JF: When I was … Yeah. Yeah. Ugh. So insufferable. But I mean the Barossa, or the McLaren Vale, rather, and it’s super … I mean, it’s crazy hot there. There’s a winery, Oliver’s Taranga, that makes a Sagrantino, and they do a Fiano, and I think it’s really smart, when you’re in a climate that’s that hot, to think about grapes like Sagrantino.

FA: Absolutely. I mean, they’re definitely still experimenting and figuring out, like, “All right. If this works, why can’t this work?” Or “This seems to be a climate that’s similar to ours. Let’s throw in a few vines.” I mean, they’re enough under-the-radar, and they have a great local consumer base that, if they make something, and maybe it isn’t their favorite thing, and they can pull out the vines in a couple of years? At least they tried it, and check that one off the list, move to the next one.

JF: Yeah.

FA: I mean, and they’re not really having a problem selling their wines. It’s hard to find Texas wine outside of Texas because they’re drinking all of the wine in Texas. Why would you export, if you can just sell it to everyone here.

JF: Yeah. No doubt!

FA: Hopefully, they get to enough production where you can find it in a few more states, but a lot of the wineries have wine clubs. They’re easy to find. They’re breaking into some markets. Chicago’s got a decent handful of producers that are selling there. New York, of course, but … Yeah. They keep … I mean, Messina Hof also does Rieslings, which you would think, “Why would you grow Riesling, this German Alpine grape, in hot Texas?” But with really capable wine techniques, and knowing your region really well, they’re able to create very dry, very approachable, affordable Rieslings.

Who knows what Texas can do? It’s these grapes that are just very surprising, that makes it difficult to be like, “Texas is this.” It’s like, “Oh, but wait. They also do this, this, and this. So maybe Texas is that.” They’re trying to find an identity, but maybe it’s not as simple as nailing it down to, “Rioja makes Tempranillo. Barossa makes Shiraz.” They’ve got the capability and enough people who are willing to just be constantly experimenting that maybe they don’t need to be the “This is the Cab state.”

JF: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, speaking of experimenting, one of the nice pleasures of recording with someone in the studio together … We’re live here together … is sharing some wine. This is our bonus wine that you brought, that I’ve been really excited to try. It’s from Southold Farm + Cellar, which … I mean, we’ve both like … used to be a winery located in Long Island, and now is in Texas. As far as how that happened, I think I can just say Long Island’s loss, Texas’s gain. But tell me about this white wine you brought. It’s very luscious.

FA: Yeah, so this is a white blend. This is one of those wines where it’s like, oh yeah, Texas is going to try … make anything, and a lot of the times, they’re going to succeed. This is Southold’s blend. It’s called Don’t Forget to Soar. It’s mostly-

JF: S-O-A-R.

FA: Yes. “Soar,” like a bird.

JF: Like a bird. Yes, I gotcha.

FA: It’s mostly Roussanne, right? I said?

JF: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

FA: With a splash of Albariño, and those are two white grapes that … I’ve been coming across them in Texas a lot. They’ve been very expressive, really fruit-driven wines. They’ve got an insane amount of acidity, and they’ve had a lot of success, so I’m hoping that they do go in this direction where they do a lot more of these Rhône blends, especially in their whites. This one is a little bit funkier. Maybe a little skin-contact going on.

JF: Possibly, yeah. It’s got some depth of color. It’s rich. It’s very good. It’s very … not indulgent, but it’s very luscious, like I said. It’s-

FA: It is luscious.

JF: Yeah. It’s got a lot of texture to it.

Fiona Adams: Exactly. Southold, this is another one of those younger winemakers who is trying new things, and really expanding the category. I would say Lewis Cellars, which I mentioned before. They’re doing a lot of interesting wines. William Chris is another winery. It’s a duo with a younger guy who’s making really awesome wines. He is not on the Tempranillo bandwagon.

JF: Mm. Ah!

FA: But his wines are incredible, so I’m not going to fault him.

JF: Right.

FA: I think having that energy has really been helping to give space to wines like this one, that’s a little bit weirder. Wouldn’t be what you’d expect, but because Texas isn’t nailed down to this one signature style, that everyone’s like, “Oh, yeah. I’ll try that one. Oh, yeah. I’ll try that. Who knows? I’m not so stuck in my ways with one style that I can just try something.”

JF: Yeah. It reminded me, like I said, I hinted at earlier, it reminds me a lot of Washington State, as far as like, “Oh, do we need a signature grape? Do we have one?” Or, I think they’re, obviously, in Washington, is farther along, but they went through those same things, where they’re like, “We’re trying this here. We’re trying it in these sites. We’re trying these warm weather grapes. We do Riesling, too, and it works.” I feel a kinship there.

But whites, rosés, reds. It sounds like Texas is a really exciting place to explore. Especially getting in on the ground floor, before the word is out. The word should be out, because they make a lot of wine. They do make a lot of wine. But I would encourage everyone to visit. I definitely want to visit. I want to go eat some barbecue and drink some Tempranillo and rosé, and maybe have-

FA: Those Rhône wines.

JF: … the Rhône wines.

FA: You’ve got to go for those Rhône wines.

JF: Yeah, the Roussanne.

FA: McPherson makes a Picquepoul that is my summer wine. They’re based out in the High Plains, so a little bit further, but-

JF: That was the first Texas wine I ever had, was a McPherson.

FA: He’s been doing it a long time, and it shows. His wines are stellar. He’s got a little bit of something for everyone. I mean, that Picquepoul, if you’re sitting outside in the heat, maybe not Texas heat, but it’s just as hot in New York right now.

JF: Yeah.

FA: That’s the wine that I want to be drinking.

JF: Fantastic. Well, there’s a lot to explore with Texas wine, so thanks for enlightening me and being on the show, Fiona.

FA: Thank you.

JF: All right. Let’s drink more of this delightful Southold wine.

FA: Yeah.

JF: Thank you for listening to the What We’re Tasting Podcast. Sponsored by Vivino, Wine Made Easy.

The three wines we discussed today were: Llano Estacado 2017 Signature Rosé, the Haak 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Texas High Plains, and the Messina Hof 2014 Paolo Limited Edition Red.

Find What We’re Tasting on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you find podcasts. If you liked today’s episode, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes, leave a comment, and tell your friends. What We’re Tasting is a Wine Enthusiast podcast. Check out Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com.

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