Kiepersol Estate: Terroir in the Glass and on the Plate….
A Truly Wonderful Combination to Behold
Continued from “Traveling the Wine Roads of Northeast Texas Wine Country and the Grape Man of Texas”:
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As I continued my drive through the piney woods of east Texas, I confronted a realization of the conjoined influence of modern man with nature on a grand scale in this region of Texas. Here is a fresh, new definition of terroir with the tenacity and cleverness of ancient farmers but with the tools and of modern agriculture. A domain of poultry, cattle and horse, as well as peas, corn and lumber.
Just south of Tyler, Texas, I entered on of these domains – The province of Kiepersol (www.kiepersol.com), the realm of Pierre de Wet, a South African emigrant to Texas and very much a self-made man. I navigated the final maze of manor homes on streets named for the classic grape varieties of Europe, ending at the Kiepersol B&B and restaurant. Once inside, I was thrust into comfort. It was the seclusion of an African bush lodge and the Long Bar at Singapore’s Raffles Hotel in one. The B&B was a manifestation of opulence and cushioned comfort. All were part of Pierre’s American dream.
Marnelle Durrett, stopped by to pick me up. She’s the married daughter of Pierre de Wet. Marnelle is the estate manager and head winemaker at Kiepersol Estate Vineyards, and oversees production of the family’s five wine labels: Kiepersol Estates, KE Cellars, KE Bushman, 4 You, and Barrel 33.
We drove to the nearby Kiepersol Estate winery overlooking sixty acres of adjacent vineyards, but first deviated through vineyard blocks populated with grapes originating from Bordeaux to the Rhone Valley of France, then down rows of grapes with a heritage of Italy and Spain, all without leaving Texas.
Many have told me that this venture was more folly than based in fact, and was doomed to utter failure from the scourge of Texas vineyards, Pierce’s Disease. Yet, here the vines stood tall and proud in the Texas sun; all green leaved, supporting this vintages heavy load of grapes.
Once inside the winery, Pierre, Marnelle and I talked of person, profession, philosophy and farming. Pierre’s strong-willed nature, can-do mentality was evident throughout. He said, “Our palate at Kiepersol, defines our terroir. We use nutrients, micro-nutrients, pruning, vine spacing to get the precise qualities in our grapes we want for our wines. It’s our unique form of Texas terroir.”
Marnelle continued along the same line saying, “When we started up Kiepersol Estate Vineyards, daddy and I looked to other established growing areas for ideas. Our approach utilized the wine philosophies of wine guru Robert Parker and sometimes even anti-Parker philosophies. We have an interesting combination of skills; my constant quest for better and better winemaking skills and daddy’s international palate and the know how to farm just about anything.”
When I asked how the idea of growing grapes in east Texas started, Marnelle said, “I finally came to the point where I just knew I wanted to be a farmer. I told daddy that I wanted to grow peaches. He thought that was awesome, but suggested that I do something that wasn’t perishable. Grapes had something over all other crops we considered. Once made into wine and bottled, we would have possibly eight or more years to sell each vintage’s grapes, not one.”
I asked Pierre when did they realized that Pierce’s Disease was a real threat to their vineyard operation as east Texas seemed to me to be potentially “ground zero” for this problem.
With a stern look, Pierre said, “When we started, we knew about it. Early, many vines died, but we started to work on the nutrition for those that remained and implemented the already known approaches. We especially focused on applying formulations that contained zinc. I’ve always known it as an immune system booster both in humans and in plants. Then, the vines that looked dead, we cut them off at the ground. But, the next spring, they were growing up again from their own roots. After one more year, we still lost some vines from PD but it was only here and there. It really wasn’t that bad. It was like the unhealthy vines died, but then the healthier ones took up the nutrients and things improved dramatically and this continues to this day.”
After my intensive lesson on Pierre’s Pierce’s Disease mitigation program, Marnelle and I went to the winery tasting room where we had a retrospective tasting of her Kiepersol Estates Cabernet Sauvignon. As a winemaker, she is still a young and developing, but her passion and quest to improve with each year was most evident. In the tasting she put in front of me Cabernet’s from five sequential vintages from 2003 through 2007. As I would soon find out, these were vintages important to her personal and professional development.
The first pour of Kiepersol Cabernet Sauvignon was from the 2003 vintage and it showed a fabulous purple color, underpinnings of dark fruit and the development of secondary aromas of leather and cigar box. This was an exceptional early vintage in Marnelle’s winemaking career and she even appeared to be a little surprised at its outstanding showing.
This was followed by vintages 2004 through 2006 where she acknowledged were more difficult. This was partly due to less vigor in the vineyard in the period before Pierre had their nutrition program totally implemented. Also, Marnelle admitted that she made some decisions that went good, particularly for the 2004 vintage. To be able to admit this and learn from it is an important step in the evolution of a winemaker’s skills.
She said, “In 2005 and 2006, I might not have been as aggressive as I could have been as a winemaker favoring used neutral oak barrels from California rather than incorporating enough new oak into the wine. They were good wines, but more austere than I wanted.”
Also, she felt like she did not work hard enough to extract everything from the grapes. It was good to see that she could critically evaluate her wines; also a sign of a maturing winemaker.
Marnelle face turned to a more pleased appearance when we tasted her 2007 Kiepersol Cabernet Sauvignon. With the 2007 vintage, it was if, she had turned a corner on her approach to winemaking.
I was first to comment that her 2007 Kiepersol Cabernet Sauvignon had deeper and darker fruit attributes than the previous wines with the exception of the 2003 vintage. It also had a notable complexity of aromas and tastes with a distinct yet ethereal smoky character.
It was apparent that Marnelle was also pleased with this wine and she said, “This is the vintage where I decided that I was going to get out of my comfort zone and push a bit harder. I wanted not just to make good wines, but take a big step-up toward making world-class wines.”
Later that evening, Pierre and I sat at the bar in the Kiepersol B&B. As we sat, I had my déjà vu moment where I realize my familiarity with the surrounding and extracted the Raffles Long Bar from the hinterlands of my mind and my many world travels.
I asked Pierre about the vastness of his east Texas domain. It is something not measured by thousands of acres, but more in a diversity of Pierre’s interests and willingness to tackle new projects. He provided a litany that started with their sixty acre Kiepersol Estate vineyard and winery, then followed with the development of nearby estate homes, an RV park, the nearly tucked out of sight B&B with its gourmet restaurant, a Hereford and Angus cattle breeding operation, KE Bushman’s winery and meeting center, KE Cellars winery, and even an recording studio.
As I perused the restaurant’s dinner menu, Pierre said, “Do you like a New York strip steak? If you do, try this one. It’s from our own Hereford cattle. We only use the top prime plus USDA quality grade beef, and it’s likely that it’s more heavily marbled than any steak like this you have eaten.”
Since, I had my wine already selected, the bottle of Marnelle’s 4You Cabernet, I felt that this was a good selection. I settled in for the New York Strip, and the wine, all from within a small area in east Texas. I guess you could say that this evening, I was the quintessential “Locavore” getting a true taste of local Texas Terroir, both on the plate and in the glass….A truly a wonderful combination.