High Plains Texas


I can’t say a great deal about most of these wines, because they were tasted on the fly or at a buffet lunch or dinner during my sojourn in the High Plains AVA (indicated in the map) back in the month of May. And My Readers throughout the country will recognize that the enterprise is inherently unfair in relationship to their curiosity because very few wines produced in the Lone Star State are available beyond its irregular borders. Naturally, this circumstance disturbs winemakers in Texas, because they know that many of the wines that issue from their doors are fine enough to stand up to any in the U.S.A. (No state, of course, has a monopoly on mediocre wines.) Texas has slightly more than 200 wineries; 95 percent of the wine is consumed inside the state. Obviously in a three-day visit, the main purpose being to tour vineyards and interview owners and growers, I could experience only the tiniest fraction of vinous products and those primarily relating to High Plains grapes. Still, I thought that it would be friendly and decent to give a shout-out to the wines that stood above the pack. I’ll say that some of the pricing structure seems inflated, if not downright grandiose. If you’re passing through Texas, however, you might want to investigate some of these wines at retail stores or perhaps visit the wineries. Most will be happy to ship for you if the state you live in allows the practice.
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McPherson Les Copains Rosé 2013, Texas, about $11. A delicate blend of 55 percent cinsault, 30 percent mourvèdre and 15 percent viognier. Kim McPherson is the son of “Doc” McPherson, one of the founders of seminal High Plains winery Llano Estacado, in Lubbock. McPherson Cellars is also in Lubbock and occupies an old Coca-Cola bottling plant from the 1930s. This is one of the best rosés I’ve had all year.
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It’s a consensus ( or fervent hope) in the High Plains of Texas AVA that tempranillo is the grape that will turn the tide and bring national attention to the region, though there’s a back-bench movement for montepulciano. This belief indicates a general segue in High Plains away from “classic” grapes like chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon to grapes that reflect the hot dry climate and its similarity to some areas of Spain, Italy and southern France. I probably tried more wines made from tempranillo grapes (or blends) while I was in High Plains than all the other wines combined; these four were certainly the best:

1. Becker Reserve Tempranillo 2012, about $19
2. Lewis Wines Newsom Vineyard Tempranillo 2011, High Plains. About $32(?). Neal Newsom is a prominent grower in High Plains.
3. Lost Oak Tempranillo 2012, about $33. (The winery is in Burleson, south of Fort Worth.)
4. Inwood Estates Vineyards Cornelious Reserve 2012, 100 percent tempranillo from the Inwood Block at Newsom Vineyards. About $69. (See next entry for more about Inwood.)
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Dan Gatlin is a wine pioneer in Texas, an outspoken and controversial figure. There’s no denying, though, that he is a brilliant winemaker or that his Inwood Estates wines, authentic and highly individual, are difficult to forget once you taste them. Gatlin’s chardonnays undergo no barrel-fermentation or malolactic and have what he called “a brief exposure to oak.” Both the 2012 and ’13 are notable chardonnays, the ’12 deftly balanced between elegance and weight, with prominent stony minerality and hints of pineapple, cloves and baked peaches; the ’13 suave, supple yet a little earthy, almost briery, showing chalky-flint elements. These are from Dallas County; they run about $40. Despite the movement toward Mediterranean basin grapes, cabernet sauvignon is still grown in High Plains; Gatlin’s Inwood Estates Mericana Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Newsom Vineyards, about $70, was definitively the best that I tasted.
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As testament to the affinity of Texas High Plains climate to the grapes of southern France and Spain, I tasted these three wines on every occasion they were offered and kept going back for more. The “Reddy” refers to Vijay Reddy, a prominent grower in High Plains.

1. Bending Branch Reddy Vineyard Mourvèdre 2011, Texas Hill Country, 145 cases, about $28.
2. Brushy Creek Reddy Vineyards Tannat 2008, Texas, about $20.
3. Brushy Creek Rachel’s Reserve Carignane 2010, Martin’s Vineyards, Texas. About $25.
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Though the grape and wine industry in the High Plains of Texas goes back only 40 years, it has already spawned a pedigree, at least in this sense. Kim McPherson, owner of his eponymous winery in Lubbock, is the son of the legendary “Doc” McPherson, founder, in 1976, along with Bob Reed, of LLano Estacado, the region’s first winery. In fact, these two remain the only wineries in the High Plains, a dry, flat, wind-swept terrain into which hedge-fund millionaires and ex-CEOs do not come parachuting and buying up land to make expensive cult wines. There are 35 grape-growers here, according to the website of the High Plains Grape Growers Association, and they tend to live in modest farm-houses with their families and raise such row-crops as cotton, sorghum and peanuts in addition to grapes.

McPherson Cellars occupies a building in Lubbock that was erected in the 1930s as the local Coca-Cola bottling facility. Though extensively remodeled, its wide-open spaces and high ceilings made it ideal for refurbishing into a winery. I visited McPherson Cellars three weeks ago and tasted through a range of the winery’s products, a line-up that illustrates the shift in High Plains from “classic” grapes such as chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon — the climate really isn’t suited — to more amenable varieties likes viognier, marsanne and roussanne for white and grenache, carignan, mourvèdre and tempranillo for red. In other words, grapes we associate with Spain, Italy and the south of France, the Mediterranean basin. Tempranillo, particularly, is looked on as the grape that will put High Plains on the vinous map.

The pricing for McPherson wines reflects its owner and winemaker’s comment that he is “the workingman’s friend,” to which he added, “I love screw-caps.” Neither expression should persuade tasters that his wines are down-market in quality, because they’re not; they are, mainly, delightful and charming, and they edge, in some cases, into serious structure.
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McPherson offered 504 cases of a sparkling wine — sold out at the winery — from 87 percent riesling and 13 percent vermentino grapes grown in High Plains, though the product was made by his brother Jon McPherson in Temecula via the Charmat process. Though pleasant enough, it felt a bit heavy and needed more cut and minerality. Good+. Price N/A.
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The next wine, however, I found exemplary. This was the McPherson Les Copains Rosé 2013, with a Texas rather than a High Plains designation, a blend of 55 percent cinsault, 30 percent mourvèdre and 15 percent viognier. A fount of delicacy and elegance, this rose was pungent with notes of strawberries and raspberries, lilac and lavender, and it displayed deft acidity and limestone minerality. 12.9 percent alcohol. Production was 480 cases. Excellent. About $11.
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The Tres Colore 2013 is a blend of carignan and mourvèdre with a touch of viognier. This is a lovely quaff, medium ruby color with a blush of magenta, fresh, briery and brambly, intensely raspberry-ish with some of the “rasp,” a hint of rose petal and good balance and acidity. 13.9 percent alcohol. 934 cases. Very Good. About $12 to $14.
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The white Les Copains 2012 is a blend of 45 percent viognier, 35 roussanne, 16 grenache blanc and 4 marsanne; I mean, we might as well be in the southern Rhone Valley. The color is medium gold, and the seductive aromas weave notes of jasmine and honeysuckle, peach, pear and papaya; very spicy stone fruit flavors are rent by pert acidity and limestone elements, while a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of dusty lilac and Evening in Paris cologne. Very charming. 13.9 percent alcohol. 616 cases. Very Good+. About $13.
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La Herencia Red Table Wine 2012 is a blend of 75 percent tempranillo, 9 percent syrah, 6 mourvèdre and 5 percent each grenache and carignan. This wine is characterized by pinpoint balance among a smooth and supple texture, graphite minerality, juicy red and black fruit flavors and bright acidity. A highly perfumed bouquet exudes hints of macerated red and black currants, orange rind and pomegranate. Another charming and drinkable wine, though with a steady spine of structure. It aged 14 months in new and neutral French oak barrels. 13.9 percent alcohol. 986 cases. Very Good+. About $14.
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McPherson also turns out 100 cases of Chansa Solera Reserve Single Cream Sherry that ages two years in American oak barrels. It’s made from chenin blanc and French colombard grapes. With its dark amber color, its notes of toffee and toasted coconut, cloves and allspice, bitter chocolate and roasted almonds, its sweet entry but bracing, saline finish, this is a pleasant way to end a meal. 16.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $28.
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The young man pictured here is John Lewis Sims, and by “young” I mean that he just turned 21, making him old enough to drink alcoholic beverages in Texas. That stricture has not kept him from making wine, however, which he has been doing since he was 14. When I was in the High Plains of Texas last week, Sims showed up at a party where my writer colleagues and I were about to fall upon some magnificently tender and juicy beef brisket and simultaneously taste a raft of the state’s wines, many fashioned from grapes grown in the High Plains AVA. Sims cradled a bottle of his own wine with the attention a recent mother gives to her newborn, but there was nothing shy about his fervor.

“Making wine is all I ever wanted to do,” he said. “I love this place, and I want to grow grapes and make wine that reflects the nature of the vineyard. The main thing is allowing the original grapes to express themselves. I mean, isn’t that what it’s all about?”

It might be difficult for outsiders to understand the almost fanatical devotion that High Plains inhabitants evince for a geographical phenomenon that is relentlessly vast and oppressively flat, where the summers are hot and the winters cold, and where the wind blows ceaselessly and is often laden with sand and dust sucked up from abandoned fields. “The people are tenacious,” said Sims, “and the wines are tenacious.”

Sims works for the Binghams — always referred to as “the Binghams,” as one might say “the Mondavis” — and for his uncle Dusty Timmons, a well-known grower. The bottle that Sims brought to the party was made from two rows of tempranillo grapes that he tended in Timmons’ vineyard in Terry County. The tempranillo grape is increasingly important in the High Plains, as growers turn away from the chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot planted 30 and 40 years ago toward southern European and Mediterranean grapes more suited to the rigors of the High Plains climate.

Was the young man’s tempranillo a great wine? Well, no, but it was attractive and drinkable and subtly complex. The color was deep purple shading to magenta; it was ripe and plummy, a little dusty and briery, with a plethora of graphite and granitic elements, hints of lilacs and violets and sappy, rooty red and black currant and raspberry flavors. Alcohol content is 14 percent. I’d buy a case if it were available, but Sims made only two or three cases.

“I really want to stay in High Plains,” said Sims, “and establish it as a distinctive and reliable region.” Could we ask no less from any winemaker?

This post is the initial entry in a series that I’ll be writing about my visit to the High Plains AVA.