Dry Desert and Good Texas Wine Meet at Monte Sec Vineyard
A pale orange sunset backlit the darkening city with a ribbon of city lights dotting a path between the mountains to what the Spanish missionaries 400 years ago named Paso del Norte. On this trip, I flew into El Paso, Texas for immersion into west Texas history, geology and viticulture for my upcoming book on the new Texas wine country experience. The goal for this particular outing was to see one of the largest private vineyards in Texas – Robert Carpenter’s Mont Sec Vineyard located about a hundred miles by car east of El Paso in Del City. You may have seen this vineyard designation on bottles of Llano Estacado’s premium wines and you likely tasted it in some of their other wines not so designated.
Meeting me at the vineyard in the Chihuahuan desert was Llano Estacado Winery’s Vice President/Executive Winemaker, Greg Bruni. Greg is the man who in the early 1990s staked his California winemaking reputation and dedicated his career to improving Texas wines in what he calls “the smart way”. Over this period, he worked together with vineyard operators, tending to the special needs of the vines making the vines stronger and improving wine quality with each vintage. As we stepped down from the truck and onto the dry, calcareous desert terrain, we were met by vineyard owner Robert Carpenter and fellow Chihuahuan desert grape grower and viticulturalist, Paolo D’ Andrea from Deming, New Mexico.
Bruni favors this vineyard because of the long standing tradition of desert grape growing in this West texas region first established back in the days of the Spanish missions centuries ago. Also, he feels that it’s not quite as harsh as the more northern Texas vineyards in terms of late spring freezes. Despite this distinct advantage, Monte Sec has others extremes with which to contend. The way Greg says it, “When it’s hot, it’s really hot, when it’s wet the rain comes in torrents, and the water quality also adds a bit of concern, but we are working to mitigate that.” From Robert’s view point, “Wine growing at Mont Sec makes good business sense in terms of diversifying my adjoining farming operation that includes about 9000 acres of hay, chilies, oats and more.”
Greg mentioned that Robert’s and Paolo’s desert vineyards in Texas and nearby New Mexico appear to be some of the most sustainable in the Southwestern United States; that’s based on both yield at harvest and quality of the grapes. These vineyards appear able to dodge some of the bullets shot from the gun of late spring frosts gaining some protection from the harsh north wind in the lower latitude and the buffer of the surrounding mountains.
The tasting included several works-in–progress: A series of winery tank and barrel samples of wine from the 2009 Mont Sec vintage including an aromatic Chenin Blanc, a wine that Greg called a “bare naked” Monte Sec Chardonnay (pre-oak) and this year’s Viviana right after co-fermentation of it blend of Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Riesling grapes. Greg also said, “The Texas Twitter tasting event that was recently held in Dallas [http://vintagetexas.com/blog/?p=1083]* taught me something about the new generation of younger Texas wine aficionados. I originally got some feedback that our new Viviana might be a bit out-of-the box for Texas wine consumers. But, the result of the Twitter Taste-Off showed that many participants liked it enough to vote it a Silver Award in the dry white wine category. It was a confirmation that Llano Estacado’s Viviana shows what great aromatics Texas white wine can attain.”
* For more on the 2009 GOTEXAN DrinkLocalWine.com Conference and Texas Twitter Taste-Off go to http://www.drinklocalwine.com/reports-from-the-drinklocalwinecom-conference.html, and the upcoming DrinkLocalWine.com 2010 event, go to: http://www.drinklocalwine.com/2010-conference-schedule.html.
We then segued to the Llano Estacado Mélange wines – A dry rose from the Llano Estacado tasting room and the commercially released red Rhone-style blend made from the blend of Mediterranean red grapes – Syrah, Carignan, Mourvedre, Grenache co-fermented with Viognier skins. This is where Texas wine tasting gets really interesting for me with strong red berries tomes accompanied by hints of smoke, spice and even a bit of dry earth that comes naturally from the Mont Sec terroir.
The tasting moved on to two of the Mont Sec components of Mélange: First, the Mourvedre which Greg feels adds to the spicy aroma and a bit of Syrah that which has been thus far difficult to grow, but provides great aromatic components to the wine. The surprise for me in this field tasting was a barrel sample of the Monte Sec 2009 Sangiovese. It was darker than I expected and exhibited a of bit spice and pepper on the finish. Greg said that this crisp red wine would be combined with Texas High Plains Newsom Cabernet Sauvignon to produce Llano Estacado’s premium red blend Viviano.
The quality of Mont Sec Vineyard wines that Greg, Richard and Paolo all agree appears to be typical of the Chihuahuan desert terroir was apparent in the next series of Cabernet Sauvignons along with the different winemaking styles:
Paolo’s New Mexico Luna Rossa Cabernet Sauvignon made from grapes from 22 years old vines with two years of barrel aging that brought out a bit of complexity and particularly a dark berry and hints of licorice and perhaps of European tradition. Greg’s Llano Estacado Reserve Cabernet (Mont Sec single vineyard designated) showed a bit more fruit forward style and a bit of higher quality grapes and processing over Llano’s basic Cabernet offering. It was apparent from both wines that the harsh Chihuahuan desert environment produces conditions make the vines stress but that needs careful monitoring and control to not be too cruel and damage the vines. This is edge of terroir that can sustain viticulture of classic vinifera varieties of wine grapes and the manual for grape growing in this region is being written as we speak jointly by Greg, Richard and Paolo.
All in all, from my visit to the Chihuahuan desert I saw a landscape that was stark and imposingly punctuated with The Franklin Mountains on the edge of El Paso to the vineyard site sitting at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains. The vineyard was also stark as this time of year, the vines were dormant and pruning of last year’s cane was just started. The Mont Sec vineyard setting is reminiscent of another well respected wine region: The high, dry Mendoza plains that confront its own immense Andres Mountain scenery.
Anybody want to take on the charge for a new Chihuahuan desert AVA for Texas? And New Mexico?