By Terry Thompson-Anderson
Photography by Phil Hammel
At a recent gathering at the Texas Pierce’s Disease Research and Extension Program facility in Fredericksburg, Dave Reilly, winemaker at Duchman Family Winery in Driftwood, made a provocative statement: “The days of frivolous winemaking in Texas are done.” For this he received a hefty round of applause that should reverberate throughout the Texas wine industry.
Texas winemakers are getting serious about the quality of the wines they produce and the way their wineries impact the environment. This is particularly evident at one of Texas’s newest wineries, Bending Branch Winery in Comfort. Owner and winemaker Bob Young, a retired physician, incorporated one of the tenets of the Hippocratic oath—“never do harm”—into his philosophy when he built the winery, and certainly into his style of winemaking.
Bob was interested in wines throughout his career, so when his daughter, Alison, moved to San Antonio and married, Bob and his wife, Brenda, decided to move to the Hill Country and start a winery. From the beginning, the winery was a family operation. Bob, who completed his enology studies at University of California, Davis, is the winemaker. Alison owns Sustainable Perspectives Group in San Antonio, a consulting firm that advises clients on sustainable construction and practices for their businesses. She serves as the accountant for the winery. Bob adds that Alison is a stickler for keeping the winery on track with sustainability issues. Brenda did the interior decor of the tasting room and office facilities, and son-in-law John Rivenburgh, who recently received his certificate in horticulture from Texas Tech University, serves as vice president of vineyard and winery operations.
Jennifer Beckman, although not a family member, fills a very important position at the winery as a certified sommelier. She’s also the director of marketing and manages the tasting room.
Bob and Brenda’s mission began with seeking sustainable methods in the construction of their facilities, the planting of their vineyards and the making of their wines. They weren’t interested in building a grand tasting room. In fact, the cozy tasting room was originally a small barn that was converted using recycled materials from the property. Likewise, the production facility, offices and barrel room, as well as both homes located on the grounds, were constructed from rock dug from the land and other recycled materials obtained from local sources. The tasting room’s bar was crafted from a large oak tree on the property that had succumbed to oak wilt.
The family is striving to create a market name with their unique varietals and high-quality wines. They believe that these practices will bring about a change in the varietals grown and the winemaking practices in Texas and result in a raise of the bar for Texas wines.
The key elements in Bob’s strategy are extensive research of and experimentation with the varietals he planted, growing techniques and production procedures. He selected varietals never before grown in Texas because his research led him to grapes that matched a list of criteria he had established. He sought varietals that would thrive best in hot climates with no cool nights and poor soil, had late-spring bud break (and therefore, a later harvest date), were drought-resistant and retained nice levels of acid. Always the physician, Bob also sought grapes that were high in procyanidins, the most active of the polyphenols—compounds proven to lower the risk of both heart disease and cancer.
The winery currently has 16 acres of vines under cultivation with a total of 20 acres in the master plan, and 2011 will mark the first totally organic crop to be harvested at Bending Branch. The vineyards are located at the highest elevation of the property, where the view is quite spectacular and would’ve been an obvious choice for building a home. But Bob chose to give the vines the benefit of the higher elevation. And he started with organic rootstock, which has resulted in stronger vines.
Bob and John are experimenting with a few different growing methods—one being the French dry-farming methods using no irrigation. “You gotta be tough to grow grapes in the Hill Country,” John says. They’re conditioning the vines to be tough, also. For those vines that require watering, a drip-irrigation system utilizing collected runoff rainwater is used. Canopy management is another area of experimentation. Knowing that petite sirah grapes are particularly sensitive to the sun, they chose to use head training—a system of canopy management that uses no trellising. Instead of being supported, the vines are left to grow on their own from the trunk—resulting in a bush-like plant. This method is only suited for vineyards in which the fruit is handpicked.
Although the current prototypes for Bending Branch wines were mostly made using personally selected fruit from small California vineyards, the winery will produce wines using their estate-grown grapes, or those sourced from other Texas vineyards, in the future. Of the varietals planted at Bending Branch, 100 vines are bonarda, a grape widely grown in Argentina and known for its late bud break. Often compared to dolcetto, bonarda grapes occupy a mere 50 acres in the United States. John thought the vines had been killed in the severe winter of 2011 and had intended to pull them up when time permitted. He was shocked to see buds appearing on the dormant vines in May. “It was like finding the Holy Grail,” he says. “We’re looking forward to their late harvest and working with these grapes.”
Other varietals that Bob believes will be great for Texas are tannat, a native of Southwestern France with the highest levels of procyanidins of any red wine; petite sirah; and souzão, a Portuguese varietal that grows very well in extreme heat. Bob and John planted 500 new vines of souzão in the record-breaking drought of 2011, and they’ve taken off—standing up to the stress beautifully. The first bottling of souzão (using California fruit) was released in October.
Bob notes that malbec will also be a star for them. Picpoul, a white wine varietal grown in the Languedoc region of France, is their signature white. They’ve also planted Mourvèdre, vermentino and rousanne. The entire Bending Branch team is dedicated to producing Texas-terroir wines.
For the production of Bending Branch wines, Bob is taking the practice of winemaking back to the roots—using many Old World techniques such as whole-berry fermentation, in which grapes are not crushed and only the stems are removed. As fermentation progresses, gentle punch downs are performed every few days as cap management.
They’re also experimenting with a practice called saignée, meaning “bled.” It’s a French term used in reference to the maceration process in which the color from the skins is slowly bled away. In the process, 20 percent of the liquid is removed during the fermentation and used to produce a rosé wine. The remaining grapes, stems and skins are very concentrated in flavor and remain in the “juice” to produce a powerhouse red.
Bob has also used extended macerations of up to 30 days on his tannat and petite sirah—creating wines that are more aromatic with smoother tannins and more complex layers of flavor than those that underwent shorter maceration. Extended maceration also helps to preserve a high level of procyanidins.
Bending Branch is a hands-on winery, with attention to detail given at each step of the growing and winemaking process. Ninety percent of their testing is done in-house, in a state-of-the-art laboratory where a spectrometer stores instant readings on pH, acidity, sugar, malic acid and alcohol levels. And Bending Branch is the only winery in Texas with a walk-in cooler where grapes are stored as soon as they are picked—minimizing bruising and decomposition of the fruit before it can be crushed and transferred to fermenting tanks.
“If you want to call yourself a boutique winery, then you can’t use mass-production methods,” says Jennifer, noting that younger winemakers are taking this initiative to bring beneficial changes to the industry. “Well, at least my name is Young!” Bob quips in response.
2009 Tannat, EM, 1840: For a new winery to win a gold medal and the Grand Star Award at the 2011 Lone Star International Wine Competition is noteworthy indeed. This wine was produced using fruit from the Bella Collina vineyards in Paso Robles, California. Bending Branch also produced a Texas Tannat using fruit from Reddy Vineyards in the Texas High Plains, which sold out quickly. Historically, the slow-ripening tannat varietal was the foundation for a noble wine originating in the Pyrenees foothills south of Bordeaux. Today, tannat is grown in Lodi and Paso Robles in California, where it is producing high-quality New World wines. The 2009 EM has an inky purple-red color and very intense fruit. Luscious notes of black cherry, dark chocolate and cola brighten the palate before unfolding layers of anisette, mint leaf, cedar and violet. The extended maceration period of 30 days involves leaving the skins, seeds and pips in the juice after the completion of alcoholic fermentation. The process soothes and softens the otherwise-firm and often-harsh tannins found in tannat and creates an elegant wine with a silky texture on the palate.
Picpoul Blanc: Picpoul blanc is an ancient southern French varietal from the Languedoc region, where it is produced as a delightful white vin de pays, or country wine. Picpoul, known as “lip stinger” for its bright acidity, generates flavors of tropical fruits and is known as one of the gems of the southern Rhône for its ability to boost the bouquet of Rhône-style blends. It’s a white wine that red-wine drinkers like, and a great wine to pair with food as it’s the white equivalent of a full-bodied red. Bob first discovered picpoul at Tablas Creek Vineyard, a small winery in California. This first picpoul was produced from Tablas Creek fruit and won the silver medal in the 2010 Lone Star International Wine Competition and the bronze medal in the 2011 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. The first estate-produced and bottled picpoul blanc will be released early in 2012. Fans of Bending Branch’s first picpoul blanc are eagerly awaiting this first Texas version.
Bending Branch Winery
142 Linder Branch Tr., Comfort
830-995-2948 • bendingbranchwinery.com