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The Vines of Texas : A New Liquid Gold Springs From the Hill Country of the Lone Star State

July 03, 1988|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

AUSTIN, TEX., recently was the site of the third annual Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival. It was a sellout, with more than 300 visitors in attendance at every session. It was there that I renewed my acquaintance with Ed and Susan Auler of Fall Creek Vineyards, whom I had visited a year before.

Ed, a second-generation Texan, filled me in on a most wine-significant geological factor that affects that region. The Balcones Fault separates the eastern and western portions of the Texas Hill Country, bisecting it with a noticeable upward granitic thrust. The vineyard area, about the size of the state of Iowa and entirely west of the fault line, enjoys a relatively cool climate to which grapevines are receptive. The section east of the granitic division, however, suffers from the humid influence of the Gulf of Mexico--an intolerable condition for grapevines.

When the Aulers were touring Burgundy in 1974, Ed was impressed by the soils of the Cote d'Or and their resemblance to the land on their Hill Country ranch in Llano County. Suddenly, the slopes of the Clos Vougeot vineyard took on new meaning. "I told Susan, 'I'll bet we could grow grapes like that at home.' "

He did so. After an unsuccessful attempt with hybrids, Auler began setting out test plots of the popular vinifera: Chenin Blanc, Emerald Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Carnelian, Grenache, even Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

Wine master Zelma Long of Simi in Sonoma County, a festival judge, as with me when Auler invited us to visit the vineyard and winery. More than anything, I wanted to re-taste the 1985 Chardonnay that had impressed me so much on my previous visit. "Really delicious," was Zelma's considered reaction as we sat down to a vertical tasting of the 1985, 1986 and 1987 editions. "It has a fine aging potential." Unfortunately, only 38 cases had been made--from the small test plot of vines, in third leaf. A freeze had caused a disaster vintage in 1987; very little wine was produced, and that from purchased grapes. It was a good wine but not comparable to the 1985. The outlook for 1988, however, is good, with a potential for 800 cases. After clearing our palates from the Chardonnay, we tasted the popular 1985 Chenin Blanc. Although the sweet edge of 1.9% residual sugar is present, a good and sprightly acidity keeps it from being cloying. It's quite refreshing and would be a happy companion to any kind of food, especially to the zesty Southwest regional cuisine. Well-chilled, this Chenin Blanc would tame even a hair-raising Texas barbecue chili.

Fall Creek Texas Hill Country wines generally are available in Southern California. But if Texas touring is on your agenda, look around for Fall Creek 1986 Cabernet Sauvignon--truly excellent--and Auler's frankly lighthearted 1987 Granite Blush, a rose-pink blending of 95% Johannisberg Riesling and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, with an edge of sweetness. Why granite? Because that's the color of the local granitic soil. I've yet to discover a White Zinfandel to get excited about (except for the dry Enz Vineyard edition), but in the blush category, the Fall Creek Granite Blush is worth lugging home from Texas. (It is not distributed in California.)

Good wines by themselves cannot bring the Texas economy out of the doldrums, they certainly raise to a higher magnitude the reputation of the Lone Star State.

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