Andrew Chalk, Senior Writer, Texas Wine and Trail
Raymond Haak stands in the corner of his vineyard at the back of his winery in Santa Fe, Texas, halfway between Houston and Galveston. Here, amid residential streets, is Haak Vineyards and Winery. The mission-style building that houses the tasting room that fronts the road leads through to pathways to the vineyards and an event space with a commercial grade kitchen that gets fully-booked for weddings three quarters of the year. Surveying the denuded vines in January, it requires some imagination to picture them in the spring, after regrowth bathes the 3 acres of vineyard in green.
Here he grows Blanc du Bois, the hybrid grape developed by the University of Florida with the objective of creating a grape that was Pierce’s-disease resistant. Pierce’s disease effectively cuts off the water supply to parts of a vine, killing it within five years. In Texas, it is spread by an insect called the glassy-winged sharpshooter and is endemic to the gulf coast. Very few grapes are resistant.
Why, I ask Haak, did he and his wife establish their winery here in 2000, given the difficult conditions? Because he was here, he replies, an engineer in Houston’s oil industry. He ships grapes grown other parts of Texas, mainly the High Plains around Lubbock, and makes the wine here on the gulf. He is currently sourcing Malbec and Tempranillo from grower Vijay Reddy in Brownfield in the Texas High Plains AVA.
The mission-style tasting room at the front of the winery
It may have been that engineer’s background that explains his tinkering approach to Banc du Bois. It is significant, because it got him global acclaim and pretty much enshrines him as one of the significant pioneers of the Texas wine industry. The reason: He invented a whole new category of Texas wine – dessert Blanc du Bois made in the style of the Portuguese wine, Madiera.
Hunter Hammett, one of the sommeliers with the wine on his list (The Pyramid Restaurant and Bar in Dallas) says “[I] Was first introduced to Haak Jacquez Madeira as a Judge for The Dallas Morning News Wine Competition and was greatly impressed with its refined style and overall aromas of Freshly Ground Coffee Beans, Dark Chocolate, Molasses and Spicy Anejo Rum.”
To see the significance of this, it is instructive to go back to Blanc du Bois in Texas before Haak introduced his Texas Madeira made from Blanc du Bois. The grape could survive Pierce’s disease and the humid climatic conditions, but it produced a white wine without arresting character. It was vinified sweet by Texas wineries that sold directly from the cellar door and also as a dry, high-acid, wine by most producers. The latter style competed most closely with Sauvignon Blanc, which was available from producers all over the world. A lot of these looked like good value compared with the cost of producing Blanc du Bois in Texas.
The label of the iconoclastic Haak Blanc du Bois Madeira
Haak investigated ways of escaping this price prison by creating a more refined wine from Blanc du Bois. The result was his Madeira, a 18% alcohol Blanc du Bois submitted to the estufagem process under which it is heated to 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit for a period of 6-12 months. The result is an oxidative sweet wine with 18% alcohol and a character similar to that of Madeira. The critic Jancis Robinson, author of the Oxford companion to wine, reviewed it and scored it “superior”. Thus, Haak, the boutique winery from Sante Fe, TX, was now mentioned on two continents.
In the same idiom, Haak took the primary red grape of the gulf, Lenoir (also known as ‘Black Spanish’ and, Haak’s own favorite eponym, ‘Jacquez’) and made a madeira out of that.
Not content with having madierafied (the word may not exist, but does sound better than maderized) the two favored grapes of the gulf, along the way Haak had also subjected them to the same treatment as the famous port wine of Portugal. The result was a white port (from Blanc du Bois) and a red port (from Jacquez).
Not content with two dessert categories to his name, Haak turned his attention to Blanc du Bois as a table wine. In 2008, he produced a Blanc du Bois Reserve in which the wine had been aged sur lie in neutral oak barrels.
The result is a wine with more body and a creaminess that elevates the quality of the flavors above those of conventional Blanc du Bois. It is one of the best table wine examples of the grape in the state. My plea to him is to spring for one new French oak barrel (a mere $1,300 or so) and make an experimental Blanc du Bois in the style of a California Cabernet. I have tasted something similar done to Viognier (a long lost Arrowood Vineyards and Winery wine) and to Chenin Blanc (2011 De Morgenzon, Stellenbosch, South Africa). This would be an interesting expression of Blanc du Bois.
Locked up: The old wines cellar at Haak Vineyards and Winery
One step that Haak is taking, is a steady increase from just under 10,000 cases per year up to 20,000 over a five year period and subject to vintage availability. He doesn’t plan to become large, he just sees economies of scale that he can exploit now that he has defined his style of winemaking.
Haak wines are available either from the winery web site or at good wine merchants around the state.
Disclosure: Haak Vineyards and Winery provided the tasting described in this article and lunch. And some sample bottles for review. I paid all my other costs, including transport to the winery.