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Visiting Texas Wine Country

by Paul Franson

What's happening in Texas is also occurring over the country: the rise of local wine destinations. Texas Hill Country claims that it is the second wine destination in America, and crowds fill the wineries less than an hour from Austin and San Antonio.

Many of the wineries are just as attractive as those in California, the rolling hills covered with vines are lovely, and many of the wineries offer amenities like inns and restaurants.

Texas Hill Country On top of that, the wine is pretty good. Texas growers and wineries have overcome many challenges to produce wines that may not compare with Napa's best Cabernets, but they are well made and imminently drinkable with food or alone.

The Hill County spreads mostly east of Fredericksburg, a historic town that negates every stereotype of Texas you can imagine. It was founded by Germans in the 1840s. Until World War II, German was the common local language and used in schools.

The typical local food is German-American, not Tex-Mex or barbeque: wiener schnitzel, the inspiration for chicken-fried steak, sausages, beer and decadent pastries.

Fredericksburg was a tourist draw before it became a wine destination. People came to shop on the bustling Main Street filled with art galleries, antique shops and far more, and eat some of the hearty fare. Historic sites abound, including the restored Nimitz Hotel with its peculiar steamboat prow, the old church and meeting house, and a pioneer complex and many buildings dating to the mid 1800s.

A new attraction is the impressive Museum of the Pacific War, which Admiral Nimitz, a native of Fredericksburg, largely headed. The hotel is now a museum dedicated to his life.

A few more recent pioneers started planting grapes in the area a few decades ago. The climate is mostly Mediterranean with hot summers and receives little rainfall, but presented many challenges to growing fine wine grapes. Most early growers planted tough hybrids like Norton, Baco Noir and Spanish Black after their European wine grape vines died. They make ports and other wines from those grapes, but now have most of the grapes shipped in, largely from the Texas High Plains around Lubbock, a dry area at higher than 3,000 feet, like Mendoza in Argentina.

When I visited the Hill County a decade ago, most of the vines were hybrids, and many of the wines substandard. Even with decent grapes, the local winemakers needed time to learn how to best utilize them. It was the way Napa Valley was when I first visited in the late '60s—some great wines, a lot of good ones and some wretched.

As in Napa, the standard has changed. Almost all the wines tasted on a recent visit were good or better, if few reached heights. Only a couple were technically defective, though some reflected limitations of growing conditions, including perhaps slightly premature picking in fear of the weather.

In general, I'd characterize them as European in the good sense. The whites were mostly crisp and clean, not over-oaked. The reds were good wines and good matches for food. A number of things have happened to make growing vinifera wine grapes practical in the Hill County, though they still get a lot from northwest Texas. First, they have learned what grapes are best suited for the area: Spanish, Italian and Southern French varieties, not Cabernet and Chardonnay. Reach for a Tempranillo or Sangiovese or Viognier instead.

Second, they have learned to live with Pierce's disease and the glassy-winged sharpshooters, which are native to the area and kill European grape vines. In simple terms, they use insecticides to kill the bugs. They are also researching vines tolerant of PD.

The climate remains a challenge, however. Sudden spring frosts can kill over-anxious buds and shoots.

We tasted a number of wines while in the area and also visited four wineries, Becker Vineyards, Torre di Petra, Grape Creek and Pedernales Cellars. All the wineries visited made good wines, both sweet as well as dry ones.

If you are headed that way, I suggest a visit.

Paul Franson is a freelance writer living in Napa, CA. ~

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