Let’s Taste the Terroir, Search for Parking and Savor the Coffee

Let’s Taste the Terroir, Search for Parking and Savor the Coffee

Entry 3 – The Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival Adventure

Two festival events preoccupied my attention yesterday: “Where Terroir Meets Tradition”, a noontime luncheon tasting featuring six premium Texas wines appointed with three carefully inspired food  pairings from select Texas chefs, and “Stars Across Texas”, the grand Austin tasting escapade where signature dishes meet a cadre of fine wines from around the world.

The morning started with the flash-bang of a Hill Country thunderstorm that announced a gray-black veil of rain on the Big Hill and the thirsty countryside. Departing the cottage had me following the storm eastward to Austin. My trip was a leisurely drive across land that was taking its big gulp of nature’s nourishing moisture; being that it’s been rather parched around these parts for some time. Entering Austin, I thought that I was in for a storm rematch, but it had lost some feistiness and could only muster a light April shower as I parked my car and strolled to the AT&T Conference Center and Hotel.

Where Terroir Meets Tradition

The panel included three Texas winemakers: Ed Auler (Fall Creek Vineyards – www.fcv.com), Paul Bonarrigo (Messina Hof Winery – www.messinahof.com), and Russell Smith (Becker Vineyards – www.beckervineyards.com); winery principals Mark Hyman (Llano Estacado Winery – www.llanowine.com) and Angela Moench (Stone House Vineyard – www.stonehousevineyard.com); winery spokesperson, John Bratcher (McPherson Cellars – www.mcphersoncellars.com); panel moderator, Jane Nichols (Wine Educator at the Texas Culinary Academy – www.texascookingacademy.com).

Course 1: The first presentation was a Yin-Yang of wine and food pairings featuring Maria Maria (www.mariamariarestaurants.com) Chef Octavio Benavides’ preparation, a sweet chipotle marinated shrimp tacos, blackberry sorbet vinaigrette, fresh strawberries, crunchy slaw and habanero sauce. Mark Hyman presented Llano Estacado Signature Mélange – red blend and Paul Bonarrigo presented Messina Hof Angel Riesling; at first blush, wines of totally opposite character. Can they possibly each pair with the wines? Both showed the excellent pairing possibilities for spicy Texas cuisine with the medium body, fruit-driven red wine (Mélange), as well as with the sweet but crisp white wine (Angel Riesling).

Course 2: The next presentation involved two red wines: Russell Smith offered the deeper, darker red wine, Becker Vineyards Prairie Rotie, and John Bratcher went with a lighter bodied, cherry infused McPherson Cellars Sangiovese. Both were paired against a tomato-fennel soup with topped with vodka, olive oil crema and celery salad, a creation of Chef Josh Watkins (The Carillon Restaurant in Austin’s AT&T Conference Center and Hotel – www.meetattexas.com/restaurants.html#carillon).

Who says you can’t pair soup and wine? Let him speak now, or hold his peace. I asked Chef Watkins how he approached his recipe knowing the soup would be paired with two red wines. He said, “I know that soups generally pose problems for wine pairings, but in this case, I tried to match the acidity of the wines to that of the tomatoes that I used for the soup base.”

During a short break, I was able to meet my table-mates for the tasting. They were Gary and Fredna Manney who were also fellow Houstonians and had a reputation that they were upholding. Gary and Fredna attended 22 out of the 24 Hill Country Wine and Food Festivals in Austin. They were deeply into the tasting and even brought their own Riedel stemware. Congrats to Gary and Frenda – Keep up the good work. See you next year or hopefully in Houston. 

Course 3: The final appearance involved the big-dog red wines of the event: Ed Auler presented Fall Creek Vineyards Meritus, a premium red-blend of Bordeaux varietals that sneaks in a Rhone varietal, and Angela Moench brought her Claros – a proprietary red wine based on her estate-grown Norton grapes. Both wines were rich and full bodied and paired in a mano y mano manner with Marathon’s Gage Hotel (www.gagehotel.com) Chef Paul Peterson’s Texas grilled quail served with honeyed pears, field greens, smoked onion vinaigrette for an all Texas plate.

The panel discussion was interesting and tended to focus around how as Ed Auler said, “Texas is a whole other Country”. It is sometimes impossible to simply take techniques from places like California and apply them here; the conditions just aren’t the same. Techniques for Texas grape growing and wine making are still being learned and refined.” He illustrated his point with his use of blending to make the best Texas wine possible, as is common in other warm growing regions around the world. Ed said, “I have made Meritus about a half a dozen years over the past decade and in each case, the resulting wines were from completely different blends of red grapes as conditions in these years varied.” The most recent of Ed’s Meritus wines even included Syrah, a non-Bordeaux grape varietal. The situation presented itself in 2005, he experimented and he believes that it had great results. Meritus has gone from a Merlot-driven wine at the start to Cabernet Sauvignon dominated wine and now refocused on Merlot, supported by a cast of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Malbec with a squirt of Syrah.

The Stone House Vineyard Claros has an equally interesting story to tell arising from its origin with the Norton grape, a French-American hybrid that has gained significant interest in the past ten years for premium table wines. This wine has lots of color and deep dark berry qualities that Angela has found to be of medal winning quality starting with grapes grown in her Stone House Vineyard in Spicewood, Texas.

With the luncheon event complete and the evening grand tasting event hours away, I had time to relax in Austin and perhaps grab a cup of coffee. However, try to find a hitching post for your car in this town. It is hard to find a parking slot on a clear day, even more challenging when it rains, and on a Friday afternoon to boot……Oh Mama! After a trek around downtown Austin, I ended up with a five dollar parking tab, and this just to get a cup-o-java. Happily, there are good souls in this town. After I told barista my setback, she said, “The coffee’s on the house”.

Watching the rain, savoring my coffee, and reading my notes…..Austin is a pretty nice place, after all.

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