The Wines of Autumn

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Transitional Wines – The Wines of Autumn

By Jane A. Nickles

Its will soon be autumn in Central Texas but the heat of summer is still upon us. It may be hard to believe, but in just a few short months we will be in the deep chill of winter. For many Texans, every year at this same time, the charm of summer is starting to wear off and we long for a break from the heat!

Lucky for us, just about when we reach our capacity for loving the heat, autumn arrives with a much needed break from the warm weather. For a few short weeks, there’s a slight chill in the air, the leaves are turning, and we are reminded again of just why we love Central Texas. I even have a special category of wines that I enjoy every autumn as a way of celebrating the fall season. I call these wines “transitional wines”, perfect for the short season between blasting heat and freezing cold.

Transitional wines are not the light, spritzy whites we crave in summer, or the warm-as-a-fireplace dark reds of winter. A transitional wine is somewhere in the middle. In my house, a transitional wine might be a full-flavored, full-bodied white to help ease us out of the summer of Pinot Grigio, or maybe a lighter red to ease us towards the winter of Cabernet.

One of my favorite “transitional whites” is Viognier. Viognier is a little-known white grape variety native to the Rhone Region in the south of France. Viognier, surprisingly, has never been held in very high esteem in France. As a matter of fact, the grape just never came into its own in France, where it has been used as a “cheap filler” grape in some Rhone Blends. In the early part of the 1900’s Viognier almost became extinct due to lack of interest in maintaining its vineyards. In a great stroke of luck for us “transitional white wine” lovers, the success that Viognier was denied in France has become a reality for it in other parts of the wine-making world. Viognier performs much better, and is much more highly regarded, in California, Oregon, Australia, and, most important in my mind, Texas!

The beauty of Viognier rests in its intriguing, distinctive aroma. Viognier has a markedly floral bouquet and easy-to-recognize aromas of apricot, peach, and pear. These aromas are quickly followed by rich and intense tropical fruit flavors, a creamy mouthfeel, full body and low acidity. Even without oak aging, Viognier can be as full-bodied as an oaky Chardonnay.

Viognier is still a rarity compared to other, better-known white wines. One of my favorites, widely available around Central Texas, is from the made by Clay Station Winery, from the up-and-coming wine region of Lodi in Central California. Clay Station Viognier is a very dry and full-bodied wine with forward aromas of honeysuckle, apple blossom, peach, pear, and apricot. Lush vanilla and caramel flavors are accompanied by low acidity, just a wisp of oak tannin and a lingering, smooth finish. Texas has a special affinity for Viognier, and if you would like to “drink local” this year, try a Texas Hill Country Viognier from Alamosa Vineyards in Bend, Texas; Driftwood Viognier from Dripping Springs, or Fall Creek Winery Viognier from Tow, Texas. All three have been among my favorite Texas wines for years.

As for transitional reds, my current favorite is Malbec. Malbec, many people are surprised to learn, is a red wine grape variety native to the Bordeaux Region of France. For centuries Malbec has held a very small, very-much unsung role in the red Bordeaux blend that also includes superstar grapes Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Malbec is used in the Bordeaux blend much as a chef uses spices in a recipe; in very small amounts, just to give the wine a bit of spicy “flavor”.

Worldwide, Malbec is planted in small amounts, buts its popularity and acres planted are on the rise. Recently, Malbec has found a new home and new popularity in the wines of Argentina. The best Malbec can be described as mouth-filling, fruity, and sumptuous. Malbec wines tend to be medium bodied and low-tannin, but can have a high level of dissolved solids, known in the wine world as “extract”. This makes for an interesting combination of textures and keeps the wine in the “rustic” and “earthy” style well suited to autumn nights.

Malbec wines can have a heady combination of aroma and flavor. The most common aromas include plum, blackberry, boysenberry, raspberry, vanilla, cocoa, smoke, and chocolate. Fruity and spicy flavors dominate the palate, which is always accompanied by a lingering finish full of spice and warmth.

One of my favorite Malbec wines is from the Budini Winery in Mendoza, Argentina. Expect this wine to be very dark in color, almost purple-black. The nose reveals the fruity, spicy, and wood-derived aromas of plums, spiced berries, figs, spice, and mocha. I call this wine “a glass of spice and smoke”. Many wineries in Mendoza make similar Malbec wines, many of which can be found easily in well-stocked wine shops. Also try the offerings from the Argentine wineries of Fantelli, Crios, and Domino de la Plata. A very happy by-product of the recent explosion of wineries and winemakers in the Texas Hill Country is that several wineries in our area are now making Malbec right here in Central Texas. Just recently, Becker Vineyards, one of the icons of the Texas wine industry, released a Texas Malbec that is as good as any I have ever had. I have seen this wine in many wine shops and wine bars around my home town of Austin. Ask for it at your favorite wine store and give it a try…I promise you won’t be sorry!