Saturday, October 20, 2012

Texas Wineries: The Bluebonnet Trail

October is Texas Wine Month, so it’s appropriate that I do my first post about Texas wineries this month.  The Go Texan Wine web site is a great place to start planning a trip to some wineries, and if you’re in Houston, the Bluebonnet Trail is an easy overnight getaway.  Check out their handy map.

We traveled this trail last year, but didn’t follow the official trail order.  Instead, we drove north on I-45 to Conroe, and then headed west on 105 for the first day.  We spent the night in Brenham, then drove back east toward Houston on 290.  Below I’ve listed the wineries in the order we visited them, with some notes on each, as well as where we stayed in Brenham.

Retreat Hill  (14343 Liberty Street, Montgomery TX, 936.449.5285)

The setting:  This small tasting room in downtown Montgomery is comfortable, but probably crowded at peak times.  The staff was very knowledgeable about the wines.  As the vineyard and winery operations are not on-site, there’s no tour.

The wines:  Retreat Hill grows some of its own grapes, and buys the rest, largely from other Texas growers.  They offer whites, reds, and dessert wines made from international grape varieties.  The reserve Cabriolo was my favorite and is blended from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.

Where to buy:  6 wines are available from Spec’s (downtown) and 4 of the reds are on the menu at Smith and Wollensky in Highland Village.

Cork This!  (21123 Eva Street, Suite 100, Montgomery TX, 936.597.4030)

The setting:  This combination tasting room, gift shop, wine bar, and winery is in a retail center only a few blocks from Retreat Hill.  The wine is made on site, and there’s no tour, but the facilities can be seen through large interior windows.  A few food selections are offered.

The wines:  I found most of the wines here to be a big high in alcohol and a bit low on acid.  The Ed’s Red Malbec and the Cabernet Franc were the best of the bunch in my opinion.  You can bottle your own batch here, with your own custom label.

Where to buy:  I’m not aware of a place to buy these wines in Houston. 

Bernhardt  (9043 County Road 204, Plantersville, TX, 936.520.8684)

The setting:  The winery and tasting room are located atop a beautiful hill in the county and offer live concerts throughout the year or a venue for your wedding or other celebration.  There’s also a bed and breakfast.

The wines:  Some of the grapes are grown on site.  Wines are made from international varieties as well as locally thriving types such as Blanc du Bois.  The most interesting find here is the Vin du Soleil, which is made in the oloroso sherry style.

Where to buy:  Online – ships anywhere in Texas. 

Windy  (4232 Clover Road, Brenham TX, 77833, 979.836.3252)

The setting:  This winery is located next to the owner/winemaker’s home.  The couple grow their own grapes (largely local varieties like Blanc du Bois and Lenoir, as well as muscadine grapes) and are likely to host you in their tasting room themselves.  It’s very homey, and you can learn a lot from talking to the winemakers!

The wines:  Most of these wines range from off-dry to fully sweet.  A unique offering is an off-dry Chardonnay infused with homegrown lavender.  I liked the sweet Blackbird wine the best.

Where to buy:  From the winery only, as far as I know (not online).

Saddlehorn  (958 FM 1948, Burton TX, 979.289.3858)

The setting:  The winery and tasting room have the look and feel of a giant, luxurious barn, and I mean that in a good way.  When you face the long tasting bar, you’re looking through huge windows into the wine production area. There was no tour available when we visited.

The wines:  Some grapes here are estate grown (Blanc du Bois and Lenoir) and some are imported.  I took home a bottle of Black Spanish (Lenoir).

Where to buy:  Online. 

Messina Hof  (4545 Old Reliance Road, Bryan TX, 800.736.9463)

We didn’t actually visit Messina Hof on this trip because we had been there before.  It’s by far the biggest and most well known winery on this trail, so don’t miss it!  They’ve also opened a location near Frederickburg in the last few years.

The setting:  I think it would be fair to call Messina Hof a sprawling estate.  There’s a large tasting room and gift shop, a restaurant, and a bed and breakfast next door.  The tour is very informative and includes a walk through the vineyards.

The wines:  Messina Hof generally sticks with vitis vinifera and well-known international varieties.  I don’t need to tell you what these wines taste like…you’ve probably already had some of them, and if not, they’re easy to find!

Where to buy:  Spec’s and most local grocery stores carry a variety of Messina Hof wines.

Ant Street Inn, Brenham

We stayed at the Ant Street Inn, which is a lovely historic building downtown.  The inn provides wireless internet access, fresh coffee and Blue Bell ice cream 24/7, and a complimentary full breakfast served next door at the Brenham Grill.  The web site doesn’t advertise it, but on the afternoon we arrived we were welcomed with complimentary cheese, fruit, and local wines to sample.  The inn is within walking distance of several restaurants which are good dinner options.  Rooms here are not cheap, but are well worth it in my opinion.  This is the only place I’ve ever stayed in Brenham, and I have no reason to change that!

Pleasant Hill  (1441 Salem Road, Brenham TX, 979.830.VINE)

The setting:  Pleasant Hill indeed has a very pleasant hill, and a tasting room (upstairs) with a homey, country feel.  The actual tasting bar is awfully small, but there’s an adjacent room with a few tables and chairs where you can finish your wine and have a snack.  There isn’t a menu, but there are usually one or two food options available.  Tours of the wine production area (downstairs) are available too, for a few dollars extra.

The wines:  Some grapes are estate grown, while some are imported from other parts of Texas.  For me the standouts were the port style wines.

Where to buy:  Online – ships anywhere in Texas.

Colony Cellars  (35955 Richard Frey Road, Waller TX, 979.826.3995)

The setting:  Colony has a medium-sized tasting room and gift shop next to its vineyard.  It’s fairly basic, and there’s no tour, but samples are generous!  We were served by the winemaker himself.  The website was down the last time I checked, so I hope Colony is still in business!

The wines:  ALL the wines are made 100% from estate grown grapes of native Texas varieties.  The most interesting thing here is that all the wines are made using carbonic maceration (aka whole cluster fermentation), which is different from the traditional fermentation method and produces fresher, fruitier, almost candied aromas.  Most wines have some residual sugar.  They are also very reasonably priced. 

Where to buy:  I’m not aware of a place to buy these wines in Houston. 

Texas Star  (Skipped)

We didn’t visit Texas Star for 2 reasons:  1)  It was a bit out of the way, and we had limited time.  2)  They only make fruit wine, which is generally very sweet and not really my thing.  Hopefully we'll get back there eventually.  If you’ve visited Texas Star, please comment – I’d love to hear about it!  These wines are not available locally, as far as I know.

Summing Up

I haven’t listed the days and times that the wineries are open, because they can easily change.  Make sure you check each web site, and maybe even call ahead, to ensure the wineries will be open when you visit.  Some of the smaller ones keep less regular hours.

In general, I found that the wines made from estate grown grapes, even if they’re not the familiar international varieties (vitis vinifera), were the best.  The more the winemaker can influence the raw material, the better the wine will be.

This short trip turned out to be very fun and educational.  If you’ve visited any of these wineries and/or tasted the wines, please share your thoughts!

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