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Some Storied Texas Winemakers Present Verticals of Their Best Wines

by Andrew Chalk

Wine is an evolving beverage. From the time it is bottled at the winery, through its time on the retail or kitchen shelf, to its tenth year of age (likely in some dusty cellar), it never stops changing. Texas wines are no exception. Three of the most recognized Texas wineries: Fall Creek Vineyards, Ron Yates Wines/Spicewood Vineyards, and Wedding Oak Winery recently held a tasting in Dallas to show how their wines aged. Every wine tasted was 100% Texas grapes.

In advance, we hoped to see the effect of age, while recognizing that Texas vintage conditions vary substantially from year to year. Furthermore, these wines were made in what I think we will look back on as the “coming out” decade for Texas wine. At the beginning, many of the vineyards were not fully mature. Winemakers were honing their craft while learning the character of their vines. Even by the end of the decade we did not know “what grows best where”, but we had some pointers in the form of multi-year success with certain varieties.

Seth Urbanek, Winemaker Wedding Oak Winery
Seth Urbanek, Winemaker Wedding Oak Winery

Wedding Oak Winery, represented by winemaker Seth Urbanek and Managing Partner Mike McHenry, presented first with these selections.

Future: A barrel sample of their 2020 Tioja, a 94% tempranillo, 6% garnacha, named as a play on the Spanish Rioja region that is perhaps the best known tempranillo producing area in the world. Aged for 18 months in neutral French oak.

Present: The current release 2019 Tioja, 82% tempranillo, 8% garnacha, 6% mazuelo, 3% graciano, and 1% monastrell. Demand has been such that this wine is actually sold out, although a few bottles may exist in the retail channel.

Past: A library wine, the 2013 Tioja. A blend of 74% tempranillo, 15% tannat, and 11% cabernet sauvignon. This wine actually predated Seth Urbanek’s five years at Wedding Oak, having been made by his predecessor Penny Adams, now a consultant to several Texas wineries.

This threesome very clearly showed the effect of age. The 2020 displayed a fruity, perfumy nose, velvety tannins from long phenolic chains more akin to many California cabernet sauvignons, and little impression from oak.

The 2019 could be described, loosely, as a bulked-up version of the 2020. More wood from the oak (American this time, 10% new). Aroma notes of leather, blackberry and plum and, as well as those same fruits in the mouth.Very grippy tannins.

The 2013 was clearly the oldest wine with its soft tannins, less color saturation, and the imprint of a different winemaker’s style that was less fruit-driven, more structured, more acidic. The age meant that it was now very much the softest wine and best drunk today.

Ron Yates, Owner and President Ron Yates Wines
Ron Yates, Owner and President Ron Yates Wines

Ron Yates Wines/Spicewood Vineyards presented next in the form of Ron Yates, owner and President. By way of explanation, Spicewood Vineyards preceded Ron Yates Wines and was a venture of the Yates family focusing on fruit from the Texas Hill Country, especially their estate vineyard. Ron Yates Wines is Ron’s own 2016 spinoff. He sources grapes from all over the state, going to considerable lengths to find vineyard gems such as the Friesen Vineyard represented below.

Future: The 2020 Ron Yates, Friesen Vineyards Tempranillo, Texas High Plains is yet to be released and came across like a fruit-driven Rioja wine. One thing it had, that I have not found in Texas before, was a dusty component in the nose. People find such aromas in certain California wines (‘Rutherford dust’, referring to an area of Napa, is legendary). It is very pleasant, although I wonder if it can be reproduced on-demand each vintage.

Present: 2017 Spicewood Vineyards Tempranillo, Spicewood Estate Vineyard, Texas Hill Country. Note that the current release is two years older than most other wineries, reflecting the winery’s practice of longer wood aging. This 100% tempranillo undergoes 20 months of aging in 60% new French oak and 40% neutral oak.

The nose is a complex ball of black cherries, forest floor, cinnamon, rosemary, thyme and wood. On the palate there are medium tannins, black cherry fruit, wood notes and herbs. A very pleasant wine for current drinking. While it has clearly matured versus 2020 the shift is subtle.

Past: A library release. A 2012 Spicewood Vineyards Tempranillo, Spicewood Estate Vineyard, Texas Hill Country. A blend of 95% tempranillo and 5% cabernet sauvignon. Aged for 18 months in 40% new French oak and 60% neutral oak.

A beautiful soft expression of black cherry and, per the winemaker, cocoa powder in the nose with chewy but not harsh tannins in the mouth and blueberries and toasty oak. Still lots of life in this luscious wine so drink or hold, depending on your willpower.

Ed and Susan Auler, Owners and Founders, Fall Creek Vineyards
Ed and Susan Auler, Owners and Founders, Fall Creek Vineyards

Fall Creek Vineyards presented by Ed and Susan Auler, founders and owners, and Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking. The Aulers are the Texas equivalent of royalty in Texas winemaking. They founded Fall Creek in 1975 before any other wineries in The Texas Hill Country and when there were only a handful in the state. It came out of a cattle buying trip to France that turned into an epiphany into winegrowing. They didn’t do things by halves. They hired as an advisor the single most influential wine consultant in America in the postwar era, André Tchelistcheff. Ed planted their initial estate vineyard in Tow to Bordeaux grape varieties. Later, using his skills as an attorney, he prepared and filed the petition for the Texas Hill Country AVA. It was granted in 1990.

Meritus was their tête de cuvée over most of the life of the winery (it has since been supplanted by Ex Terra) so it was fitting that it should represent the three generations of wine.

Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking, Fall Creek Vineyards
Sergio Cuadra, Director of Winemaking, Fall Creek Vineyards

Future: Sergio introduced the 2021 barrel sample, a 50/50 blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The contrast between this Bordeaux blend with the tempranillos that preceded it was immediately obvious in the color. Much darker and much more saturated. The wine was totally opaque in the glass. No hint of pyrazines in the nose, this seemed like a right bank wine in the primacy of merlot with its chocolate, mocha, and black cherry notes.

Also, before you criticize merlot, based on what was said in the hit movie Sideways, remember: Miles stole from his mother.

Present: The current release, 2018. A blend of 50% merlot, 37.5% cabernet sauvignon, and 12.5% petit verdot. Aged 18 months in French and American oak barrels. Very much the Meritus to drink now. Pair with roasted red meat, especially fatty steaks like ribeye. The fat will ameliorate the tannins, although the tannins are not harsh and I loved quaffing this wine.

Past: A library release, the 2012 Meritus. A 55% cabernet sauvignon and 45% merlot blend was quite a discovery for those present. I tasted it last month, here, but this sample was, if anything, even more atavistic than that. It reminded me of one of Randy Dunn’s wines, wines that take seemingly forever to come around. This one has aged, and well, but the tannins are still so formidable, and the fruit so vibrant that I would predict many more good years ahead. Truly an instructive example of long-aging.

What have we learned? First, Texas wines can be made to age. Second, there is an eventful journey from oenological callow youth to the totemic inscrutability of old age. Third, this agability is not widely known among consumers.

This leads to a suggestion. Winemakers should release their offerings intended for cellar age in two releases: the current release shortly after bottling, which might be referred to as Regular Release. Then, a second release when the winemaker considers the wine mature, referred to as Mature Release (each release with an appropriate front label embellishment). Low interest rates make the economics more workable and the ceremony around the tastings of the late releases would convey a halo on the whole Texas wine industry.

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