Friday, January 8, 2010

High Plains Vintners

See the full article in Texas Highways Magazine, January 2010 issue.
On a visit to Lubbock, among undulating fields of tall sunflowers or cotton, you might be surprised to spy neat rows of carefully tended grapevines winding along miles of trellis. You may find it even more surprising that those grapes end up in some of the state’s finest wines.

During a recent exploration of several Lubbock area wineries, I learned why. Good wine starts with good grapes. Good grapes start with the right kind of dirt. And the Texas Panhandle, it turns out, has that in spades.

“The soil here is excellent for growing quality grapes,” says grower Bobby Cox, who first planted grapes here in 1972 and now works as a viticultural consultant to West Texas farmers. Today, on 162 acres of this amenable soil, Cox grows Merlot, Chenin Blanc, Orange Muscat, Muscat Blanc, Marsanne, Syrah, and Nebbiolo grapes, which he sells to wineries across the state. Other Panhandle attributes that create heavenly grapes include cool nights, high altitude, and a dry climate, which combine to limit vine diseases and improve fruit quality.

“The High Plains is an enchanting place to grow grapes,” agrees Gregory Bruni, winemaker at Lubbock’s Llano Estacado Winery. Llano Estacado, which produces more than two million bottles of wine annually, purchases most of its winemaking grapes from vineyards in the High Plains and Far West Texas.

Roughly 8.9 million acres around Lubbock represent the High Plains American Viticultural Area, one of eight federally designated AVAs in Texas. For a winemaker to include an appellation such as High Plains on its label, 85 percent of the grapes used to make it must have grown within the region. Winemakers would love to tout Texas appellations on more of their labels, but even with Texas farmers planting grapevines as fast as they can, they don’t yet grow enough to meet the demand.

“Anything you could want in a wine you can find in a Texas wine,” says Bobby Cox. “People who like Chardonnay will probably like Texas Viognier. If you’re a fan of Sauvignon Blanc, you might like Vermentino. And if you normally drink Pinot Noir, try Texas-grown Sangiovese—it has the varietal’s characteristic expansive flavor.”
'Anything you could want in a wine you can find in a Texas wine.'

Viognier wines are aromatic and fruity, he adds. “They have what we would call a tropical fruit flavor, a refreshing taste. They’re especially good if it’s hot outside, and they complement foods such as grilled chicken, cream-based pastas, and mild cheeses like Provolone and Gruy√®re. Sangiovese grapes, most commonly used to make Italian Chianti, create a medium-bodied red wine with a little more acid—think ‘brightness’—than your typical Merlot. I recommend drinking Sangiovese with foods made with tomatoes, such as pizza, or what the heck, hamburgers.”

Tempranillo, a big purple grape native to Spain, make wines with pronounced fruit flavor that Cox likes to pair with steak, grilled meat, and barbecue.

“We make wine in a climate of extremes—we have extreme heat, cold, and wind, and it’s oftentimes very arid. To grow grapes in the High Plains requires application of good science,” says Gregory Bruni. But, he says, Texas farmers, and those in the High Plains in particular, definitely grow quality fruit. “As the Texas wine industry continues to evolve, grapes are getting better and wines are getting better,” Bruni says.
High Plains Wineries

* Llano Estacado Winery, on FM 1585, 3.2 miles east of US 87 in Lubbock, offers tastings and a gift shop. Hours: Mon-Sat 10-4, Sat noon-4. Call 806/745-2258
* McPherson Cellars, at 1615 Texas Ave. in Lubbock, offers tastings and tours Mon-Sat 10-6 (expanded hours in summer). Call 806/ 687-WINE,
* La Diosa Cellars, at 901 17th St. in Lubbock, includes a tasting room, gift shop, and bistro. Hours: Tue-Fri 11- midnight, Sat noon-midnight. Call 806/744-3600.

Other High Plains wineries that offer tours and/or tastings include Pheasant Ridge Winery in Lubbock, 806/746-6033; CapRock Winery in Lubbock, 806/686-4452; and Bar Z Wines near Canyon, 806/488-2214.

For more information about Texas wines, vineyards, tasting rooms, and winery tours, call 866/4TX-WINE;

Las Tortugas en Espanol

See the Spanish version of my sea turtle monitoring and kayaking expedition post on The Esperanza Project here: