AB ASTRIS: STRONG START MAKES THIS A TEXAS WINERY TO WATCH
by Andrew Chalk
The Texas Hill Country continues to bring forth several new wineries and vineyards each year. One of the most interesting and promising of the recent crop is Ab Astris Winery in Stonewall (the latin means ‘Of The Stars’). Tony and Erin Smith founded it in 2015 with Mike Nelson as winemaker. However, planning had gone on, starting with dreaming, to concrete steps, for at least five years. Mike’s father had been in the airline industry, involved in route planning on the west coast. Mike’s parents eventually moved from Texas to San Luis Obispo (SLO). Mike had also met Tony’s daughter when they were undergraduates at the University of Texas at Austin, eventually marrying her. When the couple visited Mike’s parents in SLO, wine tasting was always on the agenda. After some coaxing, Tony was persuaded to visit the area as well in 2009 and this Texas radiologist, who previously had never even considered involvement in the wine industry, and his son in law started to talk seriously about doing “something” in the wine industry. As native Texans, a Texas winery, a commitment to 100% Texas grapes, and location in the state’s wine storefront of The Hill Country gave them an objective on which they saw eye to eye.
The two visited Bending Branch winery in 2011 on a trip that turned out to be pivotal. It meant that when they got a 2014 newsletter announcing that John Rivenburgh (one of the two partners in the winery) had struck out on his own to do consulting, they contacted him about helping them set up what would become Ab Astris. Although Mike was a full-time corporate law attorney in Dallas, the two worked with Rivenburgh on everything from visiting Santa Rosa to purchase vines, establishing a vineyard, and converting the grape juice into the magic elixir, wine.
Despite having no permanent winemaking facility they took the high road with the purchase of grapes from growers like Newsom Vineyards and Reddy Vineyards for their first vintage in 2015. In 2017 they added Narra Vineyards. It was 2018 that was a landmark year with the planting of their first vineyard of 7 acres, comprising 2 acres of clairette blanche, 2 acres of souzau, and 3 acres of tannat. The following year they added 5 acres: 2 acres of montepulciano, 2 acres of petite sirah, and 1 acre of tannat. This year is the first major yield from the first planting and it will be interesting to see the results.
Based on results so far, they consider tannat to be the best performing grape that they have used. Other top-ranked grapes (shown below) are generally southern French.
Mike has a strong affinity for grenache which, by all counts, should do well in Texas, based on its organoleptic properties, but laments that its thin skins and tight clusters makes it disease-prone and has a tendency to ripen unevenly.
Ab Astris has grown output steadily and is now just shy of medium-sized in terms of Hill Country boutique wineries.
They see a cap of between 6,000 and 10,000 cases/year.
They do not currently sell through distribution. Forty percent of their output goes to their wine club membership, which is already 600 strong.
We went through the current offerings which I found to be very well made examples of their type.
2019 Clairette Blanche, Texas Hill Country
Nose of peach and lemon.
Minerality in the mouthfeel. Mike feels that this reflects the 4' of loam atop calcareous soils.
2019 Picpoul Blanc, Reddy Vineyard, Texas High Plains
Canteloup in the nose. Green apple on the palate. Good acid as expected with this grape. Serve with seafood (especially shellfish).
2019 Aurora Rose, Texas High Plains
Blend: Cinsault, malbec, mourvedre
Nose: Relatively closed but soft red fruit present.
Palate: Kiwi, watermelon, underripe cherry. Tartness from good acid.
Great summer pool/patio/people over wine.
2016 Montepulciano, Texas High Plains
Oak: American (15%), French (15%), 70% neutral;
Appearance: Translucent cherry.
Nose: Coffee, cola, burned brown sugar notes;
Taste: Good acid, chewy tannins;
A red meat wine. Barbecued brisket would be great.
2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, The Family Vineyard (Brownfield), Texas High Plains.
Nose: Ethyl acetate at first but this blew off;
Taste: Pincushion tannins. Ripe red fruit..
2016 Tempranillo, Mourning Dove Vineyard, Texas High Plains
Appearance: Translucent cherry red;
Nose: Classic Tempranillo nose;
Taste: Chewy cherry, coffee.
2016 Maximus, Texas High Plains
40% Tannat, 46% CS, 14% PV
Tank for 45 days with pump overs for extended maceration.
Appearance: Opaque ruby.
Note: Meat hints, blackberry, blueberry;
Taste: Tannat tannins.