By Andrew Chalk photos by Robert Bostick
This weekend in a tasting at WinePoste.com Texas Viognier soundly trounced California and French wines made from the Viognier grape. The judges were professional sommeliers from Dallas restaurants including The Pyramid Room, The Dallas Country Club, The Gaylord Texan, Sēr at The Hilton Anatole and Kitchen LTO among others. All of the wines were tasted blind (i.e. nobody knew the identity of the wines – they were in numbered brown bags). The wines were not just a sample, but every Viognier made in Texas (the only absentee that I know of was Cap Rock Winery, which is undergoing some turmoil at present). Plus, we had two high scoring California Viognier wines and a wine from the putative home of the grape in the modern era – Condrieu in the northern Rhone region of France.
I put together this tasting because, after four years touring over 80 Texas wineries, I have concluded that Viognier is the white grape that has proved most successful in the state. In fact, I felt it had reached a level that was comparable with California Viognier (although maybe not that of France). I was baffled that the national wine media such as Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate and Wines and Spirits did not include Texas wines when they evaluated Viognier. Clearly, this was a matter that only the facts would settle: a blind tasting of French, California and Texas Viognier by expert palates to determine where the wines stood.
Choosing The Wines
I contacted every Texas winery and asked them to supply two bottles of each Viognier they made that was currently available for resale. The wineries came through enthusiastically with 13 wineries supplying 16 wines.
Next, I needed a strong California benchmark for comparison. I asked Sigel’s wine buyer, Jasper Russo, to pick three, and I would buy the first two I found at retail in Dallas. He suggested: Miner Family Vineyard, Calera, and Melville. I found the 2010 Calera, Mt. Harlan, $34 (91 points, Wine Advocate) and the 2011 Melville Estate Viognier “Verna’s”, $25 (91 points, International Wine Cellar) and purchased them.
Finally, I needed a wine from the modern home of the Viognier grape, and the place that is still regarded as the benchmark for Viognier. I chose the 2011 Saint Cosme, Condrieu because this $65 wine scored over 94 points out of 100 in web reviews and is made by maybe the most decorated producer in the Rhône over the past two years. I expected this wine to win hands down, the compensation being that it was over twice the price of most of the Texas entrants.
Choosing The Tasters
I figured that if I did the judging the results would be about as credible as Paris Hilton discussing Newton’s Laws of Motion. So I emailed every professional sommelier in town and invited them to be a judge. On the day, eight sommeliers came to The WinePoste.com and spent two hours in silence comparing nineteen wines and passing written judgment.
I excluded myself from the scores reported below as I was involved in the packaging and preparation for the tasting. I also knew the identity of the non-Texas wines and any of this could be conceived as biasing the result.
Here are the full results.
|RANK (1 is highest)||WINE NAME|
|1||2012 Pedernales Cellars Reserve ($40)|
|2||2011 Brennan Vineyards ($17.50)|
|3||2012 Becker Vineyards ($15)|
|4||2012 McPherson Cellars ($14)|
|5||2012 Lost Oak Winery ($21)|
|6||2012 Pedernales Cellars ($18)|
|7||2011 Melville ‘Verna’s”, Santa Barbara County, CA ($25)|
|8||2012 Flat Creek Estate|
|8||2012 Perissos Vineyard and Winery|
|10||2010 Calera, Mt. Harlan CA ($34)|
|10||2011 Cross Timbers Winery|
|12||2010 LightCatcher Winery|
|13||2012 Llano Estacado Winery, TX Raider|
|14||2011 Landon Winery|
|15||2011 Saint Cosme Condrieu, France ($65)|
|16||2012 Landon Winery|
|17||2010/11 Blue Ostrich Winery & Vineyard|
|18||2012 Kiepersol Estates Winery|
|19||2010 Llano Estacado Winery, ‘Mont. Sec Vineyards’|
1) All the wines from Texas wineries are designated “Texas Viognier” on the label.
2) Texas wine prices are from the winery web site for a single bottle purchase. Case discounts usually apply. Prices for the other wines are single bottle prices that I paid at retail stores in Dallas.
The clarity of the results is stunning. I had hoped Texas would be close behind the Californians and the Condrieu. In fact, no fewer than six Texas wines beat the first non-Texas wine (the Melville from California), and the expensive Condrieu was beaten by 12 Texas wines. The top three were all experienced Texas producers: Pedernales Cellars in Stonewall in the southern Hill Country, Brennan Vineyards in Comanche, a scant 90 minutes drive from Dallas, and Becker Vineyards, probably the best known of these three producers, also in Stonewall . Two relatively new producers that I have already acquired a lot of respect for: McPherson Cellars out of Lubbock in The High Plains, and Lost Oak Winery, in Burleson, just south of Fort Worth, placed fourth and fifth.
It is hard to convey how much these dominant Texas results understate the promise of the Texas wines. These five wineries are relative upstarts compared with their out-of-state brethren. Every year they learn more about their vineyards, their climate, wine making and how these things interact. In this context, the future of Viognier in Texas is bright indeed.
Writing about the winning wine, 2012 Pedernales Cellars Reserve, Russell Burkett (wine director at Sēr at The Hilton Anatole) commented that it had “ripe stone fruits, long finish, notes of honeysuckle and white flowers and light minerality”. Aaron Benson, sommelier at the Dallas Country Club, described it as “classic Viognier…an underlying minerality balances the redolent ripe fruit” and gave it a commanding 92/100 point rating.
Regarding the second-placed 2011 Brennan Vineyards, Hunter Hammett, sommelier of The Fairmont Hotel, Dallas gave some advice to the winemaker that it was “a bit thin to be excellent but a great example of this classic Rhône varietal”. Simon Holguin, general manager at the forthcoming Kitchen LTO, said that it “finishes delicately”.
I asked Benson and Hammett, two judges who work the floor each night trying to deliver the most suitable wine to their customers, about selling Texas Viognier. They both said that selling a Texas Viognier is no harder than selling any other Viognier. The problem is selling Viognier. It is a “hand sale”, meaning that it is up to the sommelier to make the case to the customer, who typically has over 100 choices on the wine list. Hammett suggested wineries provide more guidance as to what food was intended to go with the grape. He pointed out that the choice of compatible food is not as broad as with Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. That leads to an idea: maybe Texas wineries should tour the state giving presentations to chefs on Texas Viognier food and wine pairings?
Texas Viognier has come of age. For the customer, next time you shop for a white wine, consider purchasing one. Next time you are looking for a white wine on a restaurant wine list, ask for a Texas Viognier. Even if there isn’t one on the list at the time, sommeliers choose based on customer feedback. If you are a sommelier, check the results of this tasting for the quality and value most suitable for your list. If you are a publication that reviews wines, Texas Viognier has now shown that it deserves a place at the table for your next “California” Viognier review.
Thanks to all the wineries that took part and donated their wine. Thanks to the sommeliers who gave their time and professional expertise to judge. Thanks to WinePoste.com for their facilities and logistical help.
To order these wines: Some wines are available at local retail stores. Others are available direct from the winery (all can ship to consumers in Texas).