Looking for Texas’s terroir in an Escondido Valley wine
In the world of wine, terroir is the notion that, simply stated, the character of a place can be captured in the flavor of its wine. Terroir is usually attributed to old-school European wines and well-known California vineyards, and there are those who just can’t believe that a wine possessing complex terroir can be created in our state. To a Texan, them’s fightin’ words.
I recently tasted a Texas wine that “told a story,” so to speak, about the desert-like climate of the Escondido Valley in far West Texas. The wines being produced by Mesa Vineyards under its Peregrine Hill label presented classic characteristics of their varieties: The Cabernet was full-bodied and spicy, the Shiraz was ripe and fruity like jam. But they also possessed a dry, earthen quality, something more difficult to categorize. Texas terroir?
Mesa Vineyards is something of a mystery. Domaines Cordier, a French conglomerate, owned and operated the 840-acre vineyard and adjacent winery for more than 20 years as Cordier Estates, producing the popular table-wine brand, Ste. Genevieve, as well as a little-known premium label, Peregrine Hill. In 2005, a group of Texans acquired the vineyard and winery and rechristened it Mesa Vineyards, a name that pays tribute to the majestic Texas tablerocks surrounding the property. Mesa has renewed the winery’s focus on the Peregrine Hill label, named for another local treasure, the Peregrine falcons of Big Bend National Park.
Jean-Michele DuForat, executive manager of Mesa Vineyards, relocated to the West Texas desert from his native France in 1984 to help build Cordier Estates. Now, more than 20 years later, he looks every inch the Texas rancher in his plaid work shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. As DuForat drives me through the vineyard in his beat-up pickup truck, I remain composed on the surface but giddy on the inside; Michele is notoriously protective and members of his staff informed me that five years ago he closed the vineyard and winery to tours, and now rarely allows visitors.
I look up through the window and realize that in a matter of minutes we have become lost in a sea of grapevines. The winery is now far in the distance and we are surrounded for acres on either side by the vineyard. My reluctant tour guide points out chardonnay, cabernet, and sauvignon blanc vines, among others. DuForat explains to me that some of the decades-old vines were here before him. Many, however, have been tended by his calloused hands since they were placed in the earth.
Soon, we approach a section of younger, smaller vines. “Nobody knew if it was going to work. Everybody was surprised that we could grow it here,” DuForat says with a rare smile, gesturing through the window to his relatively new acres of pinot noir. This fussy grape is the darling of the wine world, but like most divas it’s very high-maintenance: It needs warmth but can wither in extreme heat, and is also susceptible to a wide variety of diseases and parasites. Pinot is most notably grown in Burgundy, France, but also has been cultivated successfully in Oregon and California. Like the winegrower himself, these pinot vines seem to be quite comfortable in their new West Texas home.
As we begin the long drive back to the winery, we touch on the Escondido Valley’s unpredictable climate. DuForat is intimately aware of its every detail. He knows exactly how many inches of rain the vineyard received each year for the past five or more; the numbers roll off his tongue easily. “We don’t get rain too often here, but when we get it ... ” He throws up his hands in an exasperated gesture.
“It’s like having 50 children. You put that much care into it,” says Dean Underdahl of Central Market. Back at home, I have brought the Peregrine Hill Shiraz and Cabernet 2001 for this eccentric wine expert to sample. We uncork the bottles, and while we allow the guest of honor to breathe, Underdahl fills me in on his latest winemaking adventure. He has converted his half bath into a mini cellar, and is currently aging sherry there in miniature barrels. The prospect of evaluating a little-known Texas wine brings a twinkle to his eye.
He tastes the Shiraz and quickly notes its ripe strawberry and cherry flavors. “It’s fruit-forward,” he says. We both agree that it tastes more expensive than its $10 price tag. Full-bodied, it floods your palate with fruit. Tasting the Cabernet, he detects notes of currant and green pepper. I keep a secret to myself: DuForat believes that the terroir of his vineyard is most intense in this Cabernet, though it is also apparent in the other varieties of Peregrine Hill. He describes the flavor as “smoky” with hints of “burnt wood.”
Underdahl can taste the unique flavor that separates Peregrine Hill Cabernet from a California Cab or one from France. “The cooler climate of California lends itself to more acidic flavors, while this wine achieves a balance between fruit, tannin, and acidity.” He also detects something dry and earthy that reminds him of a farm or, even more accurately, a ranch. Inside, I swell with hometown pride. This is Texas’s terroir.
I remember the long, flat plains I saw on my trip out West. I think of the neat rows of vines and the giant mesa on the horizon marking the border of the Escondido Valley. When I left the vineyard, the staff was planning for the upcoming pruning season to begin in December and continue, by hand, through the early part of this month.
Underdahl can taste the product of Michele DuForat’s decades-long relationship with the land. With a final sip he concludes, “Definitely Texas.” •