Worth the Wait
To age or not to age? This is a question wine professionals often encounter when consumers wish to know how best to enjoy wines they’ve purchased. We can often piece together a helpful suggestion regarding aging potential by considering the wine’s structural elements of acidity, tannin, alcohol and even residual sugar. Equally helpful in assessing age-worthiness, however, is the historical track record of the wine’s region of origin: does it have a long history of producing wines that develop in positive ways over time?
That’s a key question, but a tough one to answer when addressing wines from younger regions. Texas, for instance.
Although wines have technically been made in Texas from as early as the mid-1800s (earlier if you include the Spanish missions of the 17th Century), serious production of Texas wine didn’t really begin until the late 1970s, and didn’t gain much ground until the early 1990s. At that time, emphasis was on experimenting with different varieties and developing commercially viable products—not assuring that wines would improve over time.
Much has been achieved since then. Of course, many still wonder, “Can Texas wine be any good?” Those who have tasted broadly enough to answer in an informed way can now respond simply: “Absolutely.” Sure, some wines from some producers still fall short, but that’s true of Burgundy or Bordeaux as well, and the best wines from Texas are really very convincing.
Beyond quality, however, the question of age-worthiness still awaits investigation. In February of 2017, the question was taken up in earnest at the TEXSOM International Wine Awards.
Early one evening, more than 50 Texas wines were opened, ranging in age from 2014 back to 1997. Most were drawn from TEXSOM’s archive library, and I contributed a few from my cellar. Having covered Texas wine for the past 10 years for Texas Monthly magazine, I was both hopeful and cautious, being uncertain how the assembled sommeliers from around the country would regard older wines from this relatively unfamiliar region.
As things turned out, I was heartened to see how willing they were to giving the wines a fair chance…and intrigued to taste for myself how well some of the wines had held up. I had hunches about which wines might have developed well, based on their quality when first released and the overall strength of their producers.
Assessing the outcome dispassionately, I’d acknowledge that only about 20 percent of the wines showed quite well. But that’s hardly a bad result for a region that’s still on the rise, or for wines from an earlier era of winemaking. Much of the feedback from the judges was strongly encouraging.
Among the top wines, a particularly impressive showing was turned in by the 1997 Newsom Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from CapRock Winery. This particular wine was made from fruit grown by the late Hoss Newsom of Newsom Vineyards in Plains, about 75 miles west of Lubbock. In 1997, the winemaker for CapRock Winery was the highly regarded Kim McPherson, currently of McPherson Cellars. When asked why he thinks this wine is still so good, he credits Newsom’s ability to grow great Cabernet.
“Hoss could grow some damn nice Cab,” says McPherson, who recalls that he employed extended maceration for more than 40 days at about 55 degrees. “We used all the free run juice and it was like you could bottle it right then. It was beautiful. The extended maceration really made that wine.”
This wine represents a lodestar from a time when Texas could have been dismissed easily as the Wild West of Winemaking. I’ve spoken with most of the state’s leading winemakers, and the general consensus is that—for many
years—wines were intended for consumption as soon as they hit retail shelves.
“Today, we’re still somewhat driven by that model,” says David Kuhlken, president and winemaker for Pedernales Cellars. “The wines need to taste good when we bottle them. The difference is that we’re now working with varieties more appropriate for Texas, with stronger aging potential as a result.”
To Kuhlken’s point, the state’s top winemakers may not be focused specifically on crafting age-worthy wines, but other aspects they are emphasizing are providing contributions toward that result.
“Having a wine that will age is always a great benefit, but it is more important that the wine has all of the elements of quality,” says Sergio Cuadra, chief winemaker for Fall Creek Vineyards. For Cuadra, who was recruited to Fall Creek following his 30-plus year career as a winemaker in Chile for producers such as Concho y Toro and Caliterra, there are three components he pursues during the winemaking process: concentration, complexity, and elegance.
“Some people say they prefer freshness over concentration, but when you have concentration combined with complexity and elegance, all of those elements build a long lasting wine,” says Cuadra.
Still, determining how to get those components depends entirely on what producers can draw from their vineyards, which vary widely. The primary growing regions include the Texas High Plains AVA, roughly an 8 million-acre swath of land—and that’s not a typo. Located around Lubbock, the region is based on rich, red sand and clay top soils, sub-soils of caliche and calcium situated two to five feet underneath. Elevations range from 3,000-4,100 feet. Notably different is the Hill Country AVA, which encompasses about 9 million acres of rolling hills with a maximum elevation of 2,100 feet. Soils include limestone, granite, clay and sandstone—in differing degrees of prominence. (There are 6 other AVAs at other points across Texas’s vast expanse, but most of the vineyard acreage is located within these two.)
Given the distinctive growing conditions within Texas, fine-tuning varieties to vineyard sites remains a top priority, with age-worthiness being a spin-off result of success. Kim McPherson has long been a proponent of grapes that have performed well historically in warm European locations such as Southern France, Spain, and the warmer parts of Italy. And as it happens, top producers such as Duchman Family Winery, Pedernales Cellars, William Chris Vineyards, and Lewis Wines have found great success based on this same approach.
However, almost everyone’s success with anything has taken time, with varieties showing their suitability to different locations only years after planting.
“When we started planting our family vineyards in the late 90s, it was a bit of a crapshoot,” says Kuhlken of Pedernales. “When you start with a new variety for the region, you have no idea what you’re going to get out of it, and it takes a time investment of at least 10 years to determine whether or not you’re on the right track. There was a time when planting Tannat seemed like a crazy idea, but now we have at least 30 different examples of it throughout the state and it’s turned out to be a great blending variety for us, adding structure and complexity to wines.”
For winemaker Dave Reilly, who has worked 10 vintages with primarily Italian varieties for Duchman Family Winery, the developmental process has involved as much “learning” by the vines as by him. “We now know a lot more about the varieties and how they’re going to work here, but those aren’t native to Texas, and the vines had to adapt to the sites and soils we have planted them in.”
And remember that ’97 Cabernet McPherson made for CapRock? He claims Cab has failed to attain or hold front-running status in Texas primarily because of heat.
“I don’t care what anyone says, the climate has changed in North Texas. We used to consistently get nights at 58 degrees or even lower. Now we’re lucky to get much lower than 68 degrees. After that temperature increase, Cabernet really has no place in Texas,” says McPherson.
Although grapes such as Sangiovese have worked for a number of producers, it is arguably one of the trickier varieties to work with.
“It’s easy to get elegance with it but more often than not you lack concentration,” says Reilly. “We are just not going to have the aging potential with that grape as we would with a variety such as Aglianico. That’s a variety with which we can play in the same league as Italy.”
“When you look at what Aglianico brings to the table,” Reilly continues, “everything is there, in fact it’s perfect. It requires barrel age for a few years before you can bottle it, but it provides good color, tannin and acidity, and is microbiologically stable.” Reilly’s current release of Aglianico is 2012, which says something about its durability. “We give it the time and oak that it needs to age before we release it, and it has become a very important part of our program.”
Other varieties that have winemakers excited include Montepulciano, Syrah, Tannat, Tinta Cao, Touriga Nacional, Alicante Bouchet, Gracia- no and—perhaps most important—Tempranillo and Mourvèdre.
Kuhlken maintains that, “Tempranillo and Mourvèdre are big pieces of the puzzle in Texas, and we rely on secondary grapes to help round out the blends.”
Additionally, we shouldn’t overlook white varieties, despite the widespread presumption that they don’t produce wines as age-worthy as reds. Duchman has brought Texas Vermentino into the national spotlight. As Reilly notes, “When you have someone like Oz Clarke saying it’s the best Vermentino he’s had not only in Texas, but in the world, it’s a pretty good feeling.”
Chenin Blanc has long been a great performer for McPherson Cellars, Fall Creek Vineyards, and Lewis Wines, as has Roussanne and Viognier. McPherson’s 2010 Roussanne quickly caught the attention of sommeliers during the February tasting, and that’s quite a feat of longevity.
“Bottom line, we’re in a much better position regarding development of our wines over time than we were in 20 years ago,” says Kuhlken. “When we set to work each year, we have a better handle on what it will take to construct age-worthy wines. We’ve got an ever-improving sense of which varieties and vineyard blocks can produce the complexity and character we’re seeking.”
Striking a balance between acidity and ripeness in the hot Texas climate will always be a challenge, as will dealing with high pH soils. But those winemakers who have thoughtfully tracked results over time are addressing these challenges more successfully as a result. Differing growing seasons also shuffle the deck each year, so even the most experienced and attentive vintners need to stay on their toes.
“Every year can be wildly different in terms of weather variations,” says Kuhlken. “It’s tough to get a great, ageable wine every year, but that’s the case in any region of the world. Whether it’s rain or hail or late freezes. And in Texas, a lot of conventional wisdom from elsewhere in the world deserves to get thrown out the window. In the Hill Country, you don’t want long hang time. Grapes are going to lose acidity. The harvest in 2017 looks like it will start in mid-July, but so far we’re getting some of the best pH numbers we’ve ever had, and everything else is still in balance. Even with an accelerated growing season like this, everything is staying just the way it should. You work with what Mother Nature gives you.”
Sergio Cuadra’s time in Chile exposed him to much different conditions than he’s experienced in Texas, but he doesn’t regard the change as a problem. “There are things that are kind of special in Texas,” he says, and I think that’s a good thing. “We have to keep an open mind. If you adjust the juice too much after getting it into the winery, you risk losing the element of terroir that’s so important. Distinctiveness is what makes a wine worth aging anyway. We are trying our best to let the grapes express themselves, and to let Texas put its fingerprint on the grapes.”
So, pulling all this together, can Texas wine age? As with the broader question of quality, the answer is, again, “Absolutely.” Obviously, all don’t age well, but that’s true in every region around the world. More important is the implication that if some Texas wines can age well, many more can do so also, based on what’s been learned about factors correlating with age-worthiness. Quality is rising rapidly in the Lone Star State, and ability to improve over time is rising with it.
So, pulling all this together, can Texas wine age? As with the broader question of quality, the answer is, again, “Absolutely.”
Reprint from TEXSOM presents SOMMELIER Volume 0, pages 38–42