West on Highway 290, It’s Where the Wine Is

by | Jul 7, 2019

Texas Hill Country is the second most visited wine region in the United States today. Only Napa Valley receives more visitors on an annual basis.

The expansive multi-county area west of Austin is home to dozens of wineries and the Highway 290 corridor from Johnson City to Fredericksburg is literally packed with possibilities. The question for the curious visitor is where to turn in, because the invitations all look pretty good from the road.

As a Texas resident for 16 months now, and I have much to learn about Texas-made wines. The good news is I am a fast and motivated learner, especially when I love the subject. Therefore, I do have a few significant findings to share with other wine lovers, and visitors to Texas Hill Country.

Tasting Texas Terroir

One of the things I enjoy about wine and visiting vineyards, a.k.a. wine tourism, is the pursuit of terroir. The objective is to sense what a particular place produces. Here’s the question…What do the soil, the climate, and the vines give a winemaker to work with and how has she decided to express this in the wine?

Making wine is part art, part science and a good bit of good fortune. Wine expresses both the terroir and the point-of-view of the winemaker. This makes wine a fascinating beverage, as well as a favorite intoxicant.

In Texas, a great majority of the fruit is grown in the Texas Panhandle, near Lubbock, and shipped hundreds of miles to Hill Country wineries where the grapes are made into wine and bottled for consumption. Therefore, when you visit a Hill Country winery, it’s highly likely that you will experience the terroir of an entirely different place.

My first question upon arrival in the tasting room is often, “What estate wines do you have available?” Sometimes the answer is none. Other times, the answer is an array of hot weather varietals like Tempranillo known to thrive in the Hill Country heat.

Three Kind Finds

If you want to get right to the good stuff, find Lewis Wines a few miles west of downtown Johnson City on Highway 290. Lewis Wines “proudly produces wine from 100% Texas grapes.” Their tagline is “Real. Texas. Wine.”

Lewis Wines 2017 Estate Rosé — $35

This is the second vintage of rosé produced from the Estate Vineyard, which was planted in 2014. The vineyard has very shallow, well-drained clay soil over limestone, resulting in wines with richness, weight, and texture.  The Touriga Nacional and Tinto Cão were hand harvested at night, whole cluster pressed, then fermented separately in stainless steel.

Ron Yates 2016 Cinsault Rosé — $22

We enjoyed a bottle of this locally-made wine at lunch in Johnson City. The light and bright Texas High Plains fruit was an ideal compliment to my deep fried flounder.

The Ron Yates winery is west of Johnson City, situated on 15.8 acres abutting Highway 290 in Hye, Texas. The acreage is currently planted with four acres of Tempranillo grapevines, with an additional six acres of estate vineyards planned for grapes such as Graciano and Petite Sirah.

Signor Vineyards 2015 Pinot Noir — $44

The kind folks at Lewis Wines directed us to Signor Vineyards, a Texas Hill Country winery that works in partnership with Weisinger Family Winery in Ashland, OR. Signor Vineyards near Fredericksburg ships Texas-grown fruit to Ashland to be made into wine and bottled. The bottles then come back to Texas in refrigerated trucks, along with bottles of wine made from Oregon fruit.

As it happens, Oregon pinot noir is my favorite wine in the world and this Rogue Valley vintage is a classic with hints of raspberry on the finish. Our ability to buy it locally and support this unique interstate connection is also a good thing.

Kickin’ Facts and Countin’ Dollars

Texas was home to the first vineyard in North America, established by Franciscan monks circa 1662. The oldest continually operating winery in the state is the Val Verde Winery, in Del Rio, established in 1883 by Italian immigrant Frank Qualia.

The wine industry in Texas accounted for $2.27 billion to the state’s economy in 2016, employing more than 12,750 fulltime workers and paying them $528 million in salaries and wages. In addition, more than 1.8 million guests visited Texas’ 400 wineries in 2016 and while there spent $482.9 million.

Jessica Dupuy, a certified sommelier who covers wine regularly for Texas Monthly, says, “In the past ten years, we’ve seen a significant boost in quality. New, savvy winemakers are setting the standard for wines that reflect a distinct flavor for the regions in which they’re grown. I think in the next decade, we’ll be talking about wine tasting like Texas in the way that we talk about Oregon or Washington.”