Deep in the heart of Texas, Hill Country wine makers are onto something special: producing promising new wines with supersized tastes. While Texas wine production is often overlooked in favor of the West Coast, as The Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association will tell you, an explosion of new wineries and tasting rooms is making Hill Country a top wine destination.
Hill Country’s top tasting rooms line scenic Highway 290, just over an hour west of Austin. While you could easily spend a week exploring the region’s wine trails, 46 (and counting) wineries, and fine dining opportunities, we’ve picked three excellent vineyards that embody the region’s unique approach to wine making.
Understanding Major Texas AVAs
Before tasting, let’s dive a bit deeper into the geography and terroir. At just over nine million acres, Hill Country is America’s second largest American Vinicultural Area (AVA). Within the Hill Country AVA, there are two smaller appellations – Bell Mountain (5 acres) and Fredericksburg (110 acres) – designated due to the unique microclimates they embody. Even though the Hill Country AVA is the largest in acreage, its production pales in comparison to the production of the Texas High Plains AVA. Located west of Lubbock in the high (3000-4000 feet) and dry Panhandle, the Texas High Plains AVA encompasses over 8 million acres and grows more than 80% of Texas’ wine grapes. Frequently, producers combine grapes from multiple Texas AVAs, particularly for large batch production.
Where to Taste
William Chris Vineyards is a family owned boutique winery offering 100% Texas wine. Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Tannat, Mourvèdre and Trebbiano Toscano are farmed on 40 acres spread throughout Texas. The elegant tasting room and spectacular grounds are in Hye, Texas, just off Highway 290. Plan ahead: tastings often sell out weeks in advance. Recommended tasting:
2015 Cinsault Rose
Pale pink hues combine with a nose of bright red berries and cream. Fresh citrus and red berries on the palate are well balanced and smooth. Lasting peach notes and lingering mouthfeel will have you pouring this wine all summer long.
This merlot dominated blend is one of the best representations of the Texas High Plains. The Hunter is a red and blue fruit forward blend and leads with a nose of spicy ginger and orange. A solid tannic structure will allow this wine age and develop well.
William Chris rarely produces Cabernet Franc but this new, limited release (262 cases) is being delivered from Kierpersol Vineyards in Tyler, TX. William Chris recommends holding this wine until 2020-2023 when it should show best. A mix of 87% Cab Franc and 8% Cab Sauvignon are combined with 5% La Pradera Petit Verdot (from Brownfield, TX) to deliver a deep ruby to purple coloration with a tart red berry nose. On the palate, stewed blackberry and orange rind lead herbal notes and green fig.
2. Compass Rose
Compass Rose Cellars is a boutique winery and kitchen nestled in Hye, Texas. In addition to tastings, the winery offers food pairings and live music. We highly recommended the Premium tasting, which pairs wines with special Chef inspired food creations in a more private intimate setting. Top selling wines include:
2015 Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc grapes are grown by the Martin Vineyard in the High Plains. Stainless steel fermentation allows the acidity to shine.
The 2014 Bearings is a big bold blend of Merlot, Grenache, Ruby cab and Cabernet Sauvignon blended after individual fermentation and barrel aged for 18 months. Grapes are sourced from both the Texas Red fruit forward and fresh acidity dominate.
The 2014 Merlot is sourced directly from the Texas Hill Country by at Robert Clay Vineyards. Aged for 18 months in French Oak, this wine expresses deep color, balance and depth of fruit.
Becker Vineyards’ winery is a 10,000 square foot facility containing 64 tanks and over 2000 barrels. Opening in 1996, the winery is the largest purchaser of French and American Oak barrels in Texas. Here are a few of Becker’s award winning favorites:
Raven is a blend of 75% Malbec and 25% Petit Verdot from the Tallent Vineyard. Smooth and rich, Raven expresses on the palate with essences of chocolate, dates and espresso.
Prairie Rotie 2013
Rich and red fruit forward, both the nose and palate demonstrate minerality, herbs, clove, and coffee.
Autunno Cab Merlot 2012
2012 was a near perfect growing year in Texas, particularly for this mix of the Talent Vineyard’s Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. This complex wine has a dark nose, with notes of cassis, violets and toasted oak. On the palate the cassis and red fruit rest on a tannic structure.
Plan Your Visit to Texas Hill Country
Texas Hill Country is just over an hour west of Austin. You’ll either need to rent a car (and bring a responsible driver) or join a tour. Book tastings at top wineries in advance, as weekends can be crowded and sell out several weeks in advance. The Texas Hill Country wineries website offers a full list of wineries and specialty trails.