Occasionally you find interesting wines where you least expect them. The Texas Bluebonnet Wine Trail is one such place where creative winemakers are not afraid of thinking outside the bottle.
Each spring, carloads of tourists pack east Texas roads looking for bluebonnets, a violet-blue flower that blankets pastureland and signals winter is over. The native wildflowers are so popular that an entire website has been created to report bluebonnet sightings. Suffice it to say, most tourists are too busy snapping photos to realize they are in the midst of an emerging wine region.
The seven wineries along the Texas Bluebonnet Wine Trail are young compared to those in California and even to the Texas Hill Country, which has been a popular wine tourism destination in recent years. But the winemakers along the Bluebonnet Trail, which lies between I-45 and U.S. Highway 290 in Washington County near Brenham, are demonstrating their creativity and their commitment to creating a new wine region along with some unusual wines.
“We made a lot of bad wine at first,” says Steve Morgan, a former engineer who now owns Saddlehorn Winery that is situated on a scenic 390-acre ranch. “I made wine as a hobby and in 2003 bought this ranch and started planting grapevines. I was a city boy who had to learn my way up.”
Interestingly, one of Saddlehorn’s most popular and best-tasting wines is made with Blanc du Bois grapes developed in Florida more than 25 years ago. Saddlehorn’s crisp dry Blanc du Bois wine reminded me of a lemony Australian white wine and with good reason. He originally partnered with an Australian winemaker who eventually returned to Australia to open his own winery.
“We still talk every week and go back and forth,” he says.
Morgan’s goal is to make “fun wines in small lots.” He is currently experimenting with planting some of his vines in the black clay surrounding the area and others in sandstone to see how the tastes will differ.
Other successful experiments are resulting in memorable wines elsewhere along the Bluebonnet Wine Trail. Along with several other wine writers, I bravely tasted the Jal Spice at Windy Hill Winery owned by Linda and August Meitzen. Made with muscadine grapes and jalapeno peppers, the wine definitely created an unexpected jolt that made my mouth tingle for several minutes. The Meitzens, who have operated the small winery for 10 years, recommended using the wine for marinating seafood and steaks as well as pairing it with cheddar cheese. I am not a fan of sweet wines or jalapeno peppers, but the Jal Spice wine was the one bottle I bought to bring home because — as the Meitzens described — it has to be the most unique wine in the world. It’s also their best seller.
Pleasant Hill Winery, which opened 18 years ago, is one of the oldest wineries in Texas and probably the only one with a real underground cellar. It also has a distinctly Italian feel, most likely because owners Bob and Jeanne Cottle are of Italian descent.
“Our grandfathers made wine,” says Jeanne, a former high school teacher. “We’re just carrying on our family tradition.”
The Cottles make 12 different wines, including a rare white port-style wine called Portejas Blanco. The award-winning port is made with estate grown grapes from Texas’ Lake Emerald area and infused with brandy. Although it’s perfect with baked brie cheese, Jeanne served the Portejas Blanco with a white chocolate that is infused with the wine itself. The combination is a party in your mouth if you are a fan of port-style wines.
While Jeanne handled the tasting room duties, Bob eagerly gave visitors a pruning lesson in his picturesque vineyards. A former mechanical engineer, Bob described how the vines must be shaped to allow grapes to grow on the new wood. He also pointed out Pleasant Hill’s experimental vineyard where researchers are studying Pierce’s Disease, which threatens Southern grape growing regions and is now encroaching on California’s vineyards.
“We are trying to save California vineyards with research we’re doing here,” says Bob. “If you can fix it in Texas, you can fix it in California.”
Texas Star Winery, the newest addition to the Texas Bluebonnet Wine Trail, offers handcrafted wines that are created from fruits not usually associated with winemaking. The bluebonnets are the official state flower, but the state’s official cactus — the Prickly Pear — is the basis for a sensational wine from vintner James Chisolm and his wife, Susan. The couple opened Texas Star Winery in Chappell Hill, Texas, this past spring, and their Prickly Pear wine is getting rave reviews. The semi-sweet wine pairs well with a Tex-Mex chicken dish and proves grapes are not the only fruit that can produce delectable wines.