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Texas Wineries

by Rebecca Chastenet de Gery

The liquid the rugged Texas landscape is best known for producing its treasured crude oil. But in recent years, residents of the Lone Star state have set their sights on refinement of a drastically different kind: mastering the art of wine making. Believe it or not, Texas is home to 26 wineries and a wealth of independent grape growers. In 1996, the state's vineyards produced over one million gallons of wine, making Texas the fifth-largest wine producer in the nation after California, New York, Washington, and Oregon. That the rough and tumble state has become giddy with talk of full, woodsy bouquets; crisp, floral notes, and the virtues of a particular varietal is relatively new. What's not new, surprisingly, is the Texas wine industry itself.

Spanish missionaries planted the state's first vineyard near present-day El Paso in 1662, and by the late 1700's Texas vintners were flourishing. German immigrants brought their wine-making traditions to the picturesque limestone bluffs of the Texas Hill Country in the 19th century, and the state's oldest bonded winery, Val Verde, was established near the Texas/Mexico border in Del Rio in 1883. If early Texas wines failed to woo connoisseurs beyond the state, one Texan in particular made a major contribution that earned him notoriety far beyond the Texas frontier.

Thomas Volnsey Munson may not be a household name in France, but the proud Gallic people have much for which to thank the native Texan. It was Munson whose research on hybrid grape varieties came to the rescue of France's ailing vines during Europe's devastating phylloxera epidemic in the 1880's. For his outstanding contribution, Munson was rewarded France's prestigious Chevalier du Merit Agricole in 1888, and his work remains one of the most important in viticulture history.

Throughout the 1900s, wine poured out of some 25 Texas wineries, but Prohibition (1919-1933) stopped the flow for decades. It wasn't until the late 1970's that a few enterprising Texans again turned their attention to wine making. Today the state boasts five Appellations of Origin, or federally-designated wine producing areas. They include Bell Mountain, Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country, and The Texas Hill Country appellations all located in Central Texas, and the Escondido Valley and Texas High Plains appellations in the far western parts of the state. A handful of small wineries are located in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and the state's Easternmost reaches, but don't benefit from an appellation.

Following is a guide to several of Texas' best-known wineries, divided by region:

Texas Hill Country

Grape Creek Vineyards
Located in the rolling hills East of Fredricksburg, Grape Creek Vineyard possesses 17-acres of vinifera vines and a fruit orchard replete with peaches, raspberries, and table grapes. The winery produced its first bottles in 1989. Today Grape Creek has outgrown its own vineyard and buys 70 to 100 tons of grapes from a Central Texas vineyard to supplement its production. All of the wineries varietals are estate bottled and fall under the Texas Hill Country appellation. Many spend time in oak -- the reds generally aged in American oak barrels, the whites (Chardonnay and Fume Blanc) in French oak. One unique Grape Creek wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Ruby Cabernet, and Cabernet Franc known as Cabernet Trois captured a 1995 Texas Restaurant Association medal.

Free tours Tuesday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm. Sunday noon to 5. Groups by appointment anytime. 1-800-950-7392.

Bell Mountain Vineyards
Bell Mountain Vineyard, located on the slopes of the area's highest peak, was founded in 1976 by the Oberhelman family. In 1986, the Bell Mountain region was designated Texas' first viticultural appellation. All of Bell Mountain's wines are estate bottled, and 56 gently undulating acres of vines fan out from the chalet-styled facility with its peaceful picnic area. Bell Mountain produces Chardonnay, Johannesberg Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Fume Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Each day's harvest is immediately crushed and de-stemmed, and wines are clarified during the winter months before bulk aging in barrels or stainless steel tanks occurs. Unlike many other regional producers, Bell Mountain ages its wines a second time after bottling. White wines are held 6 to12 months; red wines 12-24 months, and patience pays off with more complex vintages.

Tasting room and tours Saturday only (March to mid-December). Tours 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm. Tasting room open 10 am to 5 pm. Groups of 20 or more by appointment. (210) 685-3297.

Sister Creek Vineyards
The tiny town of Sisterdale (population 25) is home to Sister Creek Vineyards. While Sister Creek is hidden deep in the heart of Texas, its wines, made in a converted, century-old cotton gin, are produced according to traditional French methods. Sister Creek's vineyard features French varietals such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, and as in France, the wines undergo minimum filtering and fining. All Sister Creek wines are aged in French oak barrels. The vineyard's 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend captured the 1993 North American International Wine Competition Silver Medal, and its 1995 Muscat Canelli won the same award in 1996.

Tasting room open daily, noon to 5 pm. (210) 324-6704 (210) 324-6682.

Fall Creek Vineyard
Fall Creek Vineyard became the Hill Country's first modern winery when Ed and Susan Auler, inspired during a tour of France's wine regions, planted a modest 1/4-acre test vineyard on their Hill Country ranch. By 1979, 7 1/2 acres of vines were under cultivation and Fall Creek was producing three vintages. The winery's first varietal grapevines were planted in 1981, and by 1991, (the same year a terrible freeze destroyed 25% of the winery's vines), Fall Creek had become one of the state's largest wineries, with a 65-acre vineyard. Today, Fall Creek's well-received vintages, produced to a large extent from grapes grown by independent growers, include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Johannesberg Riesling, as well as a number of blended wines such as the Granite Reserve, a Cabernet and Merlot blend. The winery, which overlooks Lake Buchanan, is one of the area's prettiest.

Tours and tastings Monday to Friday, 11am - 3pm, Saturday noon - 5pm, Sunday (March through November) noon - 4pm. (512) 476-4477.

West Texas

Although this part of the state is more closely associated with cowboys and "The Wild West," the Texas wine-making Renaissance began here in the 1970s. Wines made by vintners in the Texas High Plains appellation have received a number of honors (18 gold medals from the mid-1980s to early 1990s), and many wineries in other parts of the state depend on high-plains vines to supplement their own production.

Cap Rock Winery
Cap Rock's imposing mission-styled facility, reminiscent of a number of stylized California wineries, soars from the Texas plains southeast of Lubbock. The winery, a relative newcomer to the area, produces classic varietals from grapes cultivated by a number of local, independent grape growers. Offerings include a Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc. Cap Rock also turns out a light, yet intense rose made from Cabernet grapes.

Free tours Monday-Saturday, 10 am - 5 pm. Sundays 1 pm - 5 pm. (806) 863-2704.

Llano Estacado Winery
One of Texas' largest and best known wineries, Llano Estacado got its start in 1976 as an agricultural experiment by 2 Texas Tech professors. Today the winery's production list includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and several blends with names such as Signature Red and Signature White. The Wine Spectator called Llano Estacado "the most successful winery in the state, both artistically and commercially," and Saveur magazine recently cited the winery's 1995 Zinfandel as "elegantly lean."

Free tours Monday-Saturday, 10 am - 4 pm, Sundays noon- 4pm. (806) 745-2258.

Pheasant Ridge Winery
Begun in 1979, Pheasant Ridge, named for the wild birds that habitually roam the vineyards, today boasts one of the state's oldest vinifera vineyards. The winery's first wines were released in the mid-1980s. While Pheasant Ridge offers a number of varietal wines -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay among others, the winery specializes in producing blends based on centuries-old French tradition. Well-respected wine critic Robert Parker has lauded Pheasant Ridge's Cabernet Sauvignon, deeming it "lush, intense, ... with plenty of character that can compete in quality with anybody."

Free tours and tastings by appointment. (806) 746-6033.

East Texas

Messina Hof Wine Cellars
This family-owned and operated winery claims that "200 years of wine-making tradition" goes into every bottle. Although Messina Hof's first wine wasn't released until 1983, owner Paul Bonarrigo's ancestors were producing wines in Messina, Sicily, at the time of Napoleon. One of the state's largest wineries, Messina Hof produces 100,000 gallons of wine from grapes grown in its 42-acre vineyard in Bryan, substantially supplementing its grape supply with fruit grown by 15 West Texas vineyards. Messina Hof's signature wine, the Private Reserve Papa Paulo Port, took the gold medal at the 1996 San Francisco Fair International Wine Competition. Also of note are Messina Hof's trio of dessert wines -- Angel, Grace, and Glory, made from late-harvest Johannesberg Riesling, Muscat Canelli, and Semillon, respectively.

Free tours Monday-Friday 1 pm and 2:30pm, Saturday 11am, 12:30pm, 2:30pm and 4pm. Sunday 12:30 and 2:30 pm. Tasting room and Gift shop open Monday-Friday 8:30am - 5:30 pm, Saturday 10am to 5pm, Sunday 12pm to 4pm.

South Texas

Val Verde Winery
Texas' oldest winery, Val Verde was begun in 1883 by Italian immigrant Frank Qualia and continues operation today under the direction of third generation vintner Thomas Qualia. The winery still produces wines using the Lenoir and Herbemont grape varieties, both of which were introduced into the state by the family in 1883 and 1933 respectively. Val Verde survived Prohibition by making and selling wines for medicinal purposes, and today specializes in Tawny Port, a wine fortified with grape brandy. Other wines produced at the winery include a Muscat Canelli and Johannesberg Reisling as well as a Texas blush wine.

Free tours and tastings Monday - Saturday 9am to 5pm. (210) 775-9714

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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