I've been in a bit of a rut lately, busy with other projects, work and then trying to get back into tasting wine and sketching at the same time - finding the time is hard to do and sometimes I surprise myself that I've written many of these entries in advance, preserving the initial experience. But if it's one thing that excites me in my journey through wine, it's wine grown in the United States. I'm continuing my attempt, slowly but surely, to collect wine from every state (if they ship to New York... sigh...) mainly after listening to another podcast called All About Wine where Texas quickly came to the forefront after Virginia, Missouri and a few fruitless adventures into Arizona, New Mexico, and Florida.
As large as things are in Texas, it also has a long history with viticulture beginning sometime around 1600 with the Spanish colonization and missionaries, particularly Franciscan Father Garcia de San Francisco y Zuniga who is credited with the first plantings on the North American continent for sacramental uses. Like many of the early missionaries they used the mission grape, now known to be the Palomino of Sherry fame. Similar situations played out along many outposts founded by Spanish colonizers in California, the Southwest, and the Southern United States who were trying to recreate the much desired commodity and lifestyle they knew in Europe. In the course of political events the Spanish crown made it illegal to produce or sell wine fearing the sales would compete too much with the wines from the motherland that they hoped to sell to the colonists, but because of obvious geographical differences, wars, westward movement of North American colonists and general human need, this eventually got knocked down the ladder of importance and viability.
During the 17tth and 18th centuries attempts to establish vitis vinifera were largely failing or struggling to succeed, many horticulturists and enthusiasts eventually turned to experimentation. As I have probably mentioned in an earlier post, hybridization was something of a novelty and a necessity as the economics (and then what could be alluded to as gastronomical influences) directed botanists, horticulturists, existing winegrowers, farmers and even businessmen to find varietals that worked best with their environments; more specifically those resistant to the diseases of the time and perhaps even more importantly to figure out how to recreate the aesthetics of vitis vinifera varietals.... and turn a profit. By the late 18th and 19th centuries, Texas was not in short supply of varietal curiosities, not to mention the ambitious or the experimental types in the profession of horticulture of which there is perhaps only one which really needs citing here: Thomas Munson. As a horticulturist and grape breeder, Thomas Munson traversed all forms of known travel through a swath of states collecting data hovering around one-thousand varietals. This work would eventually lead to successfully grafting cuttings of vitis vinifera to American rootstock, probably from the vitis berlandieri, vitis riparia, and vitis rupestris species. It was in part these efforts that helped save the European wine industry and gave hope to vitis vinifera being grown in the colonies.
Well before the turn of the century Texas's Temperance Movement, eventually supported by the Women's Christian Temperance Union who wanted to curb immodesty, violence, and drunkenness - because they worked toward salvation or whatever - was well established turning many of the cities and counties by the middle of the 19th century dry through local option laws (which are exactly what they sound like) and eventually outlawing saloons, though this didn't last long. Prohibitionist sentiments were widespread and by the time the Volstead Act was passed, much of the wine industry was decimated; with Repeal each county, city, or justice of the peace was given the final verdict on whether the area would be wet, dry or a mixture hence the current patchwork of Texas and its insane shipping laws.
To give an idea of the industry around 1900, as viticulture in this country was just sort of "growing up," Texas boasted around twenty-five wineries of which only one survived through Prohibition by becoming a supplier of sacramental wine: Val Verde Winery, established in 1883 and still in operation today. It wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that viticulture started to make a real comeback with new wineries and plantings being established as the Prohibition era laws began to loosen.
The history of wine in the United States is fascinating and expansive, taking into account all the trials and tribulations settlers had to deal with in regards to climate, politics, and then the creeping growth of one specific group, loud and proud, over the moderate to eventually reach a fever-pitch ending in the climax of Prohibition. It's hard to say where this country's wine industry would be if those years never occurred, much less if winemakers didn't assume they would've be treated differently than ever present, pervasive and cheap alcohol or even held more strongly to the European influence of wine being an accompaniment to dinner rather than some kind of escape from the harsh realities of the time. I think we could all agree it would be a more interesting map to look at.
In a nut shell it's this forgotten history that first drew me to beginning my search for wines from every state and is exactly why a place as exotic as Texas is now an entry. Can you imagine the look friend's faces when this is what I told them I was drinking?
Messina Hof is located basically in the center of the state, in what is called Texas Hill Country AVA: a giant plateau between 130m and 738m in elevation, has a climate that is predominantly subtropical with cool winters and hot summers; the soils are mostly composed of clay loam, clay and sandy clay loam, and encompasses some 9 million acres - the second largest AVA in the country. The Messina Hof winery was born in 1977 in Bryan, Texas but traces a 200 year wine making history through one side of the family tree back to Messina, Sicily and on the other side to Hof, Germany.
When I first came across this winery I was astonished by the variety of wines produced, I mean, they produce probably around two-dozen wines which is kind of mind boggling when you begin to think of all the logistics and skill it takes to organize such an endeavor. It makes me wonder if wineries are spread out too much: are they growing all of these grapes on their vineyards, do they have one winemaker, are they purchasing some of the grapes from other vineyards or out of state? What sent me along these questions, having bought this bottle back in February, is that the label on this wine indicates: Produced and Bottled by Messina Hof Wine Cellars in Woodbridge, CA..... California... in Texas? Woodbridge, if my Google is correct, is no where near Texas, located just north of center of California. What brought me to the sparkling wine you might ask out of all the other wines they offer, well... it's sparkling wine and I love sparkling wine and the fact that it's from somewhere that I didn't think sparkling wine existed. But if the label is correct then I'm starting to wonder if it's truly Texan grow sparkling wine.
I may have mentioned in an earlier entry that there is a kind of sincerity or genuineness issue at play in the American wine spectrum: it's not uncommon for wineries to purchase grapes from other local vineyards or even vineyards flung as far as California to have them shipped to Connecticut, but this raises a contentious issue: are these wines considered genuine to their place if the grapes are flown in on refrigerated planes to be made across country and sold as simply American wine. Realistically growers will have an overproduction of grapes and they need to make money, so shipping them to wherever to have others make wine or jams or whatever out of them is perfectly reasonable. It's not the quality that we're debating most of the time, it's still good wine, but it's hard to ignore that purist voice which says wine should evoke and represent the place, location, and environment that it hails from and hopefully have as little manipulation as possible - people want the authentic.
With that said, finding wine like this is what I love about American wine country: there is so much time to be caught up on since the hazards of the 20th century that it makes one wonder if Prohibition never occurred would we have more established varietals, more of a wine culture, more renowned regions? The American vine-scape has so many undiscovered areas and interesting beverages being made, particularly bubbly and port (the other bottle I purchased... to be continued!), that I tend to navigate towards them as perhaps a personal gauge of how far along winemaking in this country has come. I guess I feel like to produce sparkling or fortified wines it takes a little extra effort, materials, facilities, time, patience and skill to craft a wine that at its worst is just plain good and at its best is something to make you sing.
If this were a Prosecco, Cava, Cremant, Lambrusco or what have you, I might have a more alert bias, more of a backdrop of comparison. I guess I could essentially compare this to the FIGS nations with their established bubbly types, but Texas bubbly is too new and it would be unfair to compare; it comes down to the dichotomy of whether you contrast it against well known and established brands/types, knocking it down a rung or two, or take it for what it is with your educated palate and sensibilities for a fair shake.
With that said, this wine isn't mind-blowing, but it delivers: it doesn't lack a bit of body, being squarely on the medium side with a hint of fruit unctuousness, the profuse bubbles (injected?) providing a fresh lift of notes that I might mistake for something between a Prosecco and Cava. From the outset a burst of sweet wet grass quickly being warmed by the sun, while simultaneously quickly passing into refreshing juiciness: white fruits (apples, pears, and peaches oh my!) that entices and invites, and once rolling around the palate dominates. With a little air time you get the sense that you've quickly bitten into a cold washed, not dried off, red apple; no break, no drying, just a slightly watered down diffusion of that sweet pulp... and then the acidity kicks in like a backtracking sun-shower having missed its moment, reverberating over the territory of your palate where the fruit once danced.
I've attempted to email the estate to gain some more technical answers to how this wine was made, where the grapes are sourced, what the soil types are and more but to no avail. I'm particularly hung up on the amount of bubbles, it's not the most frothy sparkling I've ever had but it's not the petillant natural style. With this being a Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc blend and having read that these two grapes aren't particularly keen on the Texas climate, adding in the back label that mentions California, I wonder if this is really Texas born and raised? It's still good, but I want to taste what Texan terroir tastes like, no substitutions.
I can't wait to try the Messina Hof port....