Being a Judge and Finding a True Wine Identity for Texas

The LoneStar International Wine Competition

Last week I was asked to judge the LoneStar International Wine Competition, a two day wine tasting competition and evaluation of several hundred wines.  I’ve always had an interest in evaluating, rating, and “picking out the best” wines, so I was grateful to be selected and excited for the opportunity.  The fascinating part to me, was that a majority of the wines were submitted from Texas Producers.  Since my first introduction to Texas wines was just 3 years ago, and I was underwhelmed by the few that I had tried, I truly learned a great deal at this event.

As a judge, you need to be as objective as possible evaluating each wine; looking for quality, drinkability, and overall appeal to the general market.  In other words, just because I like a wine I can’t give it the thumbs up, and because I don’t like a wine, thumbs down. I need to decide, would somebody drink this, or could somebody love this enough to tell other people about, or is this wine just not worth popping the cork?  This was no easy task, knowing what some people are willing to fill their glasses with simply because they just haven’t experienced better wines.

Personal preference absolutely influences the decision making process, yet the goal is to give each wine a fair shot based on its own merit and characteristics. So finding that balance, while a challenge, is fun, exciting, and a bit intimidating.  In the process of tasting and evaluating, there were a handful of wines with flaws significant to point out, so those were easy to judge and move on.  I was intrigued by the diversity of styles, overall quality, and most of all potential many of the wines from Texas had to offer.  

5 Ss of Tasting – Swirl, See, Smell, Sip, Savor

Not to get too philosophical, but it is important to point out that our perceptions are our realities. Our unique experiences shape the framework in which we view each new situation. I say this to point out that in my 20+ years of wine experiences, I have previously preferred dry Italian, Spanish, and French wines with balanced tannins, fruit, and acid over bigger bolder new world wines with riper fruit and more gripping tannins. I also prefer lighter, more elegant expressions of Pinot Noir from Burgundy, Oregon vs. jammy fruitier expressions of Pinot Noir that lack acidity.  While my tastes have evolved and changed over the years to appreciate a much wider variety of wines personally, those are still  my go to styles, if I had to pick a few..  I think what makes me a worthy and unbiased (or at least less biased) judge, is the fact that have given the deep dark tannic wines, and plenty of other “fruit forward” new world wines serious consideration, knowing that those styles have become very popular in general with wine drinkers in America. Know what your customer likes, so you can serve them better, right?  It turns out, I really appreciate Napa Cabernet and Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir too…

But Texas wines?

I knew nothing about Texas wines 3 years ago.  I tried a few over the past few years, visited several wineries, even sold some as a distributor, and found a few producers I was impressed with. But my overall opinion of Texas wines was that they were either too sweet or lacking quality and balance in the lower to mid price.  They could be great in the higher tier price points, but didn’t seem to have much of their own identity. While the Merlots and Cabernets were well made, I felt they still couldn’t compete with Napa/Sonoma/Bordeaux, so they just got a little lost for me.  

When I think of wine, I think of a sense of place.  Texas is a state with a very strong and proud history, and the people of Texas appreciate, love, and honor that history.  So shouldn’t all Texans drink Texas wine?  Well, in fact, most of the wine produced in TX is consumed by Texas wine drinkers… so kudos for supporting your state Texas wine drinkers!  I learned as a distributor for a few years, that while many Texans will support wines from their own state, the majority of wine drinkers who are willing to spend more than $30 or $40 on a bottle of wine still seem to lean toward big name California producers over all else. It makes perfect sense to me.  What do Texans like?  Steak, BBQ, etc. Bigger is Better. Sure this is a generalization, and there are plenty of Texans who love Burgundy and Bordeaux, but these regions, while they play a much bigger role on the coasts of America and in other countries throughout the world, just don’t get much love in Texas. Napa Valley, however, has created a big name for themselves in the Cabernet Sauvignon game… there is no question that is the grape variety of choice there, and people love it here in TX.  Ask 10 people which would you drink a $50+ Napa Cabernet or a Texas Cabernet at the same price?  My guess is at least 8 or 9 are going with Napa, if not all 10.  Maybe some of it has to do with status… but the style of the wine is an important factor to consider.  So what styles of wine and grape varieties can Texas hone in on to reel in even more Texas drinkers, and more importantly set a style in motion that the whole world can appreciate about Texas?  

From this competitive tasting experience with over 100 wines from Texas, I learned that Texas is coming much closer to finding a true identity as a wine growing region of the world.  So many grape varieties are grown throughout TX, here are a few that I judged and my thoughts on the future identity of Texas wine production…

Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Blanc du Bois, Malvasia Bianca, Piqpoul

Muscat Canelli, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc

Tempranillo, Tannat, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc

Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Black Spanish, Lenoir

There are several other grape varieties grown in TX, but in order for the wine regions of Texas to to truly create it’s own identity respected throughout the world, my suggestion is to focus on the few grape varieties in bold

While white wines in general will bring less $ than reds, I think the whites I tasted were so beautifully made that I would put them up with some of my favorite Italian, French, and Spanish white wines.  Most were varietally correct, some with considerable acidity and thus great food pairing and some aging potential.  The blends seemed to stand out to me more, and I don’t see a problem with blended white wines personally.  The market may have a different point of view, but those trends should change.

The two red varieties that impressed me most (and again, many of the wines I tasted were blends of some sort) were the Tempranillo and Tannat.  While I love alliteration and the flow of Texas Tempranillo and Texas Tannat just seems too easy from a marketing standpoint, I also felt that these were the 2 standouts for me as wines to Identify Texas by.  The 2016 Tempranillo with some age on it reminded me of a great aged Rioja (but still had a distinct characteristic of it’s own), and the 2018 Tannat, while more tannic and big and bold than I prefer, showed me the most promise of a true variety that Texas could claim.  I remember loving a Merlot blend and a Cinsault/Sangiovese blend, but also thinking to myself that if I had these next to a similarly priced Bordeaux or Rhone or Italian blend, would I still hold it in such high regard?  

To sum this all up, perception is reality and creating an identity can make both a variety and a region famous.  When the world associates a certain variety with a certain region (Cabernet=California/Napa or Pinot Noir=Burgundy/Oregon, or Riesling=Germany, etc.), it seems to give special weight and power to those regions and varietals.  Since Tannat is still a relatively little known varietal on the world stage, why not make it our own, Texas?  Perhaps it will find the form of a Bordeaux style blend, or maybe a Rhone style blend, or become a popular varietal in its own right.  The potential is real.  Just as Malbec, the tough and tannic grape from Cahors, France skyrocketed to fame when many regions of Argentina created their identity around making it a fruitier, softer style.  Texas, don’t let Uruguay be the ones to make Tannat famous!

I hope you enjoyed, and if you do like those big bold tannic styles of wine, make sure to get out and try some Texas Tannat! Cheers!

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