Texas Wineries Follow in Italy's Footsteps

Editor's note: We at Lucchese constantly look to our roots, born in Italy and bred in Texas, as a source of inspiration for the lifestyle we lead. So we tapped certified sommelier, specialist of wine, and wine-contributor to award-winning Texas Monthly, Jessica Dupuy, to investigate the similarities shared by our company's two birthplaces regarding a favorite ritual of many: savoring a nice glass of wine.

The rolling terrain of the Texas Hill Country is not unlike the idyllic backdrop of Italy's Tucan region, with their winding backroads and scenic landscapes. Though different in flavor, both Texas and Italy have richly complex cuisines unique to the different regions within their borders. And the similarities trickle all the way down to the wines each region produces. That's right: Though Italy has Texas beat in its long history of making some of the finest wines in the world, Texas has discovered a niche in its own viticultural story that includes a heavy emphasis on warm climate grape varieties, particularly those from the Italian Peninsula.

The experiment

All things being equal, the first vineyards in Texas were planted in the 1600s by Spanish missionaries, which is still long after the Italians were making wine. But it wasn't until the late 1960s that the modern Texas wine industry really began to take root, when several professors from Texas Tech University, Clinton "Doc" McPherson and Bob Reed, planted a plot of experimental grapes in the High Plains region near Lubbock. Their hunch was that the climate, soils and altitude of the High Plains were similar enough to some of great wine growing regions in Mediterranean Europe, including Spain, Southern France and Italy. As luck would have it, their hunch was correct. As a result, McPherson and Reed have long been considered the pioneers of the Texas wine industry, and in 1976, they established Llano Estacado Winery, one of the first post-Prohibition wineries in Texas.

The results

McPherson was the first to plant the Sangiovese grape in his Sagmor Vineyard. A classic red grape revered in the Italian Tuscan region, Sangiovese is a grape known for making world class Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti. To this day, the Sagmor Vineyard still produces some of the state's best Sangiovese wines made by McPherson's son, Kim of McPherson Cellars in Lubbock.

Since Doc McPherson's first plantings, the world of Texas wines has grown by leaps and bounds with a wide range of grape varieties planted statewide from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay to more warm climate varieties such as Spanish Tempranillo, French Mourvedre and Viognier, and Italian Vermentino, Dolcetto and even more Sangiovese. In recent years, the quality of Texas wines has increased significantly as more and more winemakers have gravitated towards these warm climate grapes—the kind that have a tendency to thrive in the sometimes unforgiving Texas climate.

What the experts say

"I'm a big believer that Texas shouldn't be trying to make wines with grapes that do well in California," says Kim McPherson. "We don't have the same climate in any way. Grapes like Sangiovese, Mourvedre, Viognier and Roussanne are really where we should be focusing."

In fact, one of the younger wineries to the game, Duchman Family Winery, bet almost exclusively on Italian grapes when they first began in 2004. Today, their red wines are some of the most prized in the state from their Sangiovese and Montepulciano, to their Aglianico and Dolcetto. And their white Vermentino, is perhaps the winery's shining star. A bright, crisp and elegant wine, the Vermentino is the quintessential summer sipper and seems to get better and better each year.

"I love Vermentino," says Duchman Family Winery winemaker Dave Reilly. "It's done so well for us here. But really, all of the Italian varieties are so much better suited to the Texas climate than some of the other grapes that were planted here in the past. They seem to feel happy and at home here and happy vines make beautiful wines."

But McPherson and Duchman aren't the only Texas-based vineyards with a bent towards Italian grapes. We've selected a handful of Italian-inspired wines from Texas producers that are worth a sip.

The recommendations: Red

Duchman Family Winery Montepulciano 2010

Representative of a great Italian wine, this red has a balance of rich dark fruits, tobacco and a touch of mocha. 

McPherson Cellars Sangiovese 2010

A rich interpretation of a classic Italian grape, this Sangiovese has dark cherry and cola notes with balanced structure and a soft, elegant finish.

Wedding Oak Winery Sangiovese 2010

A light, luscious wine with hints of cherry, strawberry and savory herbs, this is a perfect wine for pairing with classic Italian dishes.

Messina Hof Winery Primitivo 2010

Earthy and smooth with dark fruit and a touch of spice, this Primitivo offers a nice, balanced finish that is light enough to enjoy on its own, but complex enough to enjoy with grilled meats.

The recommendations: White

Duchman Family Winery Vermentino 2012

A perfect wine for the Texas heat, this Vermentino has a restrained citrus, floral and mineral-driven nose, and a bright, inviting palate with a touch of lemon zest and crisp acidity.

Flat Creek Estate Pinot Grigio 2013

Vibrant and crisp, this Pinot Grigio has hints of pear and apple blossom with a kiss of lemon zest that offers a nice balanced acidity.