DRIFTWOOD, Texas - Cowboys, barbecue, and LBJ may rule Texas Hill Country, but some newcomers are making waves in this central region of the Lone Star State: winemakers.
Grapes have grown on the banks of rivers here for thousands of years, yet Texas Hill Country has only recently begun to rediscover its viticulture roots. It is the nation’s second fastest-growing wine destination (behind Napa Valley), covering 15,000 square miles across 22 counties.
More than 30 wineries - from large-scale operations to boutique cellars - have cropped up featuring hot-weather grapes that are well known in Europe, such as Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Grenache, and Vermentino. The growing wine industry has attracted other like-minded businesses, including quaint bed-and-breakfasts, fancy dining destinations, and luxury resorts.
A well-run marketing machine at texaswinetrail.com makes it easy for visitors to enjoy a romantic getaway that is accessible to hubs such as San Antonio and Austin. The Texas Hill Country Wineries has a passport in its wine trail brochure and map; get it stamped at each of the 33 member wineries, and you receive a winemaker-signed poster.
Don’t expect to find a nouveau Napa Valley along these bucolic Texas roads. You rarely see limos or town cars rolling around Hill Country. The wineries are laid-back without any air of pretension. No one assumes that you already know how to swirl the wine with the proper flick of the wrist before tasting. Winemakers and staff are eager to show off their products, and happily chat up the virtues of their bottles and those produced by their neighbors.
Duchman Family Winery lets visitors know how Texas wines can be. The estate produces wines from traditional Italian varieties, such as Sangiovese, Rosso, Dolcetto, and Montepulciano. Duchman, the largest winery in Texas using only local fruit, doubled production between 2009 and 2010. The most popular is a Canto Felice, which was a double gold winner at the San Francisco International Wine Competition.
“I want to change the industry. I want to show that you can make great wines using Texas fruit,’’ said Dave Reilly, a winemaker at Duchman. “People say ‘I can’t believe this is Texas wine.’ ’’
Bette Whalen is a proud Texan, yet even she was surprised by the quality of the wines. Since discovering the Hill Country wineries, Whalen tries to visit once a month.
“It’s affordable and it’s good,’’ Whalen said. “It’s nice to see there is something for everyone.’’
But don’t expect freebies either. Many of the wineries have tasting fees - some upward of $10 - and you may experience sticker shock with bottles of red regularly priced above $20.
Becker Vineyards in Stonewall has 3 acres of lavender and 46 acres of French vinifera grapevines that have produced award-winning Bordeaux and Rhone-styled vintages. These wines rely heavily - 95 percent - on Texas fruit and $10 will get you a sample of six selections. But it’s worth splurging $25 to taste wines out of barrels - just make sure to call ahead for a reservation. Becker Vineyards, featured in Wine Spectator and served in the White House, hosts special events throughout the year.
A 13-mile stretch of Route 290 from Fredericksburg to Stonewall is an easy drive on a highway lined with cattle. Along with Becker are about 10 wineries, including Grape Creek Vineyards, whose brochures reflect some lingering confidence issues: “Tuscany in Texas. Award winning wines! Really!’’
Last year’s historic Texas drought took its toll on everyone from ranchers to farmers. But the dry weather helped the state’s wineries in some cases, yielding a more concentrated, flavorful grape. Winemakers are anticipating wine from the harvest to be bolder than in years past.
A sixth generation of a Texas family brings a taste of the Old World with its Spanish style wines at Pedernales Cellars. It is located near the LBJ Ranch and the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, and features the largest underground barrel cellar in the state. At the top of Gingerbread Hill, the tasting room offers amazing views of the Pedernales River Valley. The $12.95 tasting fee gets you nine generous samples and another free glass. Several of the tasty 2009 vintages are sold out, but make sure not to leave without a $15.99 bottle of the 2010 Texas Garnacha Dry Rose.
Located 6 miles off Highway 290 on a hilltop between San Antonio and Austin, Driftwood Estate Winery features Mediterranean-style wines and awesome sunset views from the tasting room on a bluff overlooking the vineyard. Feel free to set up a picnic on the grounds and take a hydration break. Driftwood hosts frequent winemaker dinners with nearby wineries.
October is dubbed Texas Wine Trail month. But there are dozens of wine events held in Hill Country throughout the year, with several to pick from on any given Saturday. The Hill Country wine marketing group also organizes special wine trail events, including a wine and wildflower trail in April, and a holiday wine trail in December. These self-guided tours feature special tastings of newly released wines, demonstrations, and other pairings, and tickets are typically about $30.
Any drive through Hill Country requires a stop at Salt Lick BBQ, a barbecue mecca that serves up Civil War-era award-winning recipes on an old ranch about 45 minutes from Austin. This cash-only joint can fuel a day of wine touring with beef brisket, sausage, smoked pork tenderloin, potato salad, beans, and other tasty concoctions.
It’s an ideal starting or ending point for wine touring since Salt Lick Cellars opened last year on this rolling country property. The shop features a variety of vintages from the region - 5 samples for $5 - and also offers cheese from a local cheese shop and other regional products.
Salt Lick Cellars, which has 37 acres of vines, just began sampling nine wines under its own label including Ranch Road White, Hill Country Blend, and of course, BBQ Red.
This small patch of hill country brings together the best of the old and new Texas, making room for good barbecue, cowboys, and wine drinkers alike.
If you go...
What to do
Duchman Family Winery
13308 FM* 150 West
(*Farm to market road)
$5 tasting fee to sample 6 wines; $10 for tasting and tour.
Driftwood Estate Winery
4001 Elder Hill Road
$5 to sample 5 wines.
Salt Lick Cellars
18300 FM 1826
$5 to sample 5 wines.
2916 Upper Albert Road,
$12.95 to sample 9 wines and keep glass.
464 Becker Farms Road
$10 to taste 6 wines and keep glass; $25 for reserve-barrel tasting (reservations required).Jenn Abelson can be reached at email@example.com.