Popping the Cork in Texas Wine Country

Article excerpt

WE'RE GATHERED IN A tasting room to sample the day's offerings: 1991 Sauvignon Blanc, '91 Chardonnay, '92 Riesling, and '89 Cabernet Sauvignon. Prestigious awards, including a double gold from the San Francisco National Wine Competition, cover the walls and spill over into the winery's production area.

It could be a scene in California's Napa Valley, but it's not--not by a long shot. We're in Lubbock, Texas, at Llano Estacado Winery, tasting premium varietal vintages in a state whose winemaking industry is rapidly coming of age

In 1992, Texas was the nation's fifth largest wine-producing state, with 1.5 million gallons. That volume becomes even more impressive when you consider tha in the mid-1970s Texas could claim only two commercial wineries. Today, the Lon Star State boasts at least 26.

Spring is a fine time to acquaint yourself with Texas wines by touring wineries and doing some tastings.

YOUNG INDUSTRY UNCORKS

"Winemaking in Texas has moved out of the souvenir phase into the quality phase," says Steve Morse, former director of the Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock. Cabernet, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Muscat Canelli, and Riesling are among the grape varieties that grow well in Texas.

As young as Texas's wine industry is, many of its wineries have already distinguished themselves: at White House dinners, on wine lists at fine restaurants, and in the marketplace. Among the Texas-made wines that do consistently well in major competitions here and abroad are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gerwurztraminer, Johannisberg Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and sparkling wines.

While Texas is second only to California in beer consumption, Texans have been slower to acquire a taste for wine: the state ranks 30th. However, table wine consumption in Texas increased by nearly 5 percent from 1989 to 1990.

Surprisingly, the biggest out-of-state market for Texas wines is Europe, says Morse, and he attributes this in part to the popularity of Tex-Mex cuisine there. "Texas wines complement Southwest cuisine extremely well," says Robert McGrath, formerly executive chef at Four Seasons Hotels in Austin and Houston and now chef de cuisine at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona. McGrath is putting some of his favorite Texas vintages on the wine list at The Phoenician' Windows on the Green Restaurant.

DEEP ROOTS IN WINEMAKING

Winemaking in Texas dates back to the mid-1600s, when Spanish padres introduced European grapes to the New World. At a mission near El Paso, Franciscan friars planted grapes for making sacramental wine.

In the 1800s, German and Italian immigrants arrived, bringing the winemaking techniques of their homelands to the harvest of wild grapes. They also imported rootstocks from Europe.

By the early 1900s, wineries were spread across the state. Prohibition closed all but one in 1919, and wine-making became a forbidden but hardly forgotten art. …