In the waning days of August, we found ourselves back home in Austin, Texas, for a few days with family and a wedding. We set aside an afternoon to visit the Texas Hill Country wine region, which stretches from Austin westward toward, around and beyond the town of Fredericksburg. The Texas Hill Country American Viticultural Area (AVA) is one of eight federally recognized AVAs in Texas, and at some 15,000 square miles covering 22 counties is the second largest AVA in the United States. Heading west out of Austin on U.S. Highway 290, we encountered a dramatic landscape dominated by rugged hills, rocky outcroppings, dry gulches, and craggy post oaks. In Spring, the region is famed for lush expanses of wildflowers.
The Texas Hill Country is emerging as a popular wine country destination, thanks in part to its convenient proximity to several large cities including Austin and San Antonio (both within an hour’s reach) as well as Houston (not too much farther down the road); the appeal of Fredericksburg, which was founded by German settlers in 1846 and has retained an Old World charm; the stark beauty of the countryside; and a burgeoning number of wineries. Today there are over 30 wineries and hundreds of acres of vineyards scattered across the region.
Since we had just a few hours to experience Texas Hill Country wines and winemaking, we decided against hopping from one winery to the next and instead devoted our attention, at greater length and in more depth, to just one – William Chris Vineyards. The winery is situated just outside of Fredericksburg in Hye, Texas. William Chris is owned by Bill Blackmon and Chris Brundrett, who operate the tasting room in a century-old farm house alongside the winery, and who farm over 40 acres of vineyards throughout the Texas Hill Country AVA and Texas High Plains AVA (the second largest wine region in the state, up around Lubbock).
William Chris wasn’t an accidental choice. A little prior research revealed that Bill and Chris are devoted to the goal of handcrafting wines exclusively from Texas grown fruit using natural winemaking practices (minimal additives, minimal manipulation). Knowing that some Texas wineries source grapes from other states to use, at least in part, in making their wines (due to any number of factors – including insufficient grape supplies relative to growing demand, occasional crop damage, etc.), we were intent on tasting Texas wines made only from Texas grapes.
Our visit with Chris, which included a tasting of their current bottlings, a tour of the tasting room, winemaking facility and grounds, and a chat with Bill, was a real treat. We tasted several wines across a range of varieties and styles; some blended, others single varietal; some playfully sweet, others seriously dry. Like many wineries in Texas, William Chris doesn’t limit itself to a few chosen “signature” varieties, but rather relishes the flexibility to work with a diversity of varieties grown in varied micro-climates, soil types, and elevations across the state – all bringing their own unique expressions to the tasting table. William Chris typically produces several hundred cases of each of their wines in a given vintage; all told, they produced 4,200 cases in the 2011 vintage and expect to reach about 7,000 in the 2012 vintage.
Chris emphasized that their goal isn’t to imitate styles or characteristics of wines made on the West Coast or elsewhere, but to make wines that are “authentic” to Texas. Throughout our tastings at William Chris, our impression was that their wines do have a character all their own that couldn’t easily be mistaken for wines from other regions. A walk through the barrel room, with some tasting straight from oak barrels and stainless steel tanks, also affirmed their dedication to allowing Texas fruit to express itself naturally in the finished wines. At the end of the day, William Chris customers are rewarded with a “sense of place” in every bottle.
In Texas winemaking, however, authenticity doesn’t come without challenges. The heat during the growing season is relentless (with little nighttime cooling, except in the higher elevations of the Texas High Plains); conditions have been historically dry (irrigation is essential); and the possibility of a sudden, extreme weather event is always a looming threat to grape crops. Chris noted, for instance, that entire crops can be destroyed in minutes by hail, thunderstorms, wind storms, dust storms, tornadoes, and the like (all, too, very much “authentic” to Texas). But despite such potential perils, Bill and Chris so far have not had to resort to sourcing fruit from outside of Texas. For the sake of preserving the true “taste of Texas” in every sip of William Chris wine, let’s hope they never do.
Visiting William Chris Vineyards: The winery is located in Hye, Texas, roughly 68 miles west of Austin (and 10 miles east of Fredericksburg), on U.S. Highway 290. Bill and Chris genuinely enjoy sharing their knowledge and perspectives on Texas wines, winemaking, and grape growing with visitors, so we can pretty much guarantee you’ll have an enjoyable, informative, and tasty experience. For more information on the winery and their current releases, visit them virtually at www.williamchriswines.com; and if you have an opportunity to visit the winery in person, call 830-998-7654 and tell them Wine on the Barrelhead sent you.