by Andrew Chalk, Senior Writer, Texas Wine and Trail
Drive into downtown San Saba, a north Hill Country town about three and a half hours from Dallas, and right in the heart is Wedding Oak Winery. That is by design, according to owner Mike McHenry. He is as enthusiastic about invigorating downtown San Saba as he is in making wine. To that end, in 2010 he engaged a group of 20 friends to invest in what he expected to call San Saba Winery. A copyright clash led to the name being changed to ‘Wedding Oak Winery’ but the location stayed. The name refers to 400-year old oak tree about a mile north of town, now used as a picturesque location to perform wedding ceremonies. McHenry purchased three buildings just yards from the junction of U.S. 190 and state highway 16, the confluence of routes through the town. One building became the tasting room. One was replaced with a new winery (the facade is designed so that it looks as though it was built in the same 1920s era as the rest of the street. Inside are state of the art fermenters and a barrel ageing room).
McHenry has been around the Texas wine industry a lot longer than Wedding Oak’s three year history would suggest. He bought 115 acres in the area in 1998 and planted grapes two years later when he and his wife retired. He sold the grapes to nearby Alamosa Wine Cellars. He approached Alamosa owner and University of California, Davis enology and viticulture graduate Jim Johnson about going beyond grape growing, into opening a winery. Johnson was kind to McHenry, explaining that he would have to be mad to make wine. Johnson expected him to drop the idea, like most people. McHenry persisted, and Johnson taught him what he needed. One tip was: plant and use Mediterranean grapes.
Nowadays, McHenry’s role is more that of CEO. He leaves the details of winemaking to winemaker, and A&M graduate, Penny Adams. She was one of four viticultural advisors for the state of Texas when all those jobs were eliminated in 2011, so she moved over into winemaking commercially. She brings a deep knowledge of where vineyards are in Texas and how they fare.
Wedding Oak currently sources from several vineyards, including two nearby: High Valley Vineyard in San Saba County and Mirasol Vineyard in Lampasas County.
The tasting room opened first in June 2012 but, without a completed winery, Wedding Oak made wine at McPherson Cellars in Lubbock. Adams knew Kim McPherson from her time with the Texas Agrilife Extension.
Wedding Oak’s first release was a quartet of wines: A Muscat Canelli/Viognier blend named Bridal Blush, a Trebbiano/Vermentino blend sold as Wedding Oak White, a Viognier, a Sangiovese and a Tempranillo blend which they named Tioja (Texas Rioja).
Since then the winery has won awards for all these wines in the Lone Star International Wine Competition and the Houston Rodeo International Wine Competition. In the near future, they plan to venture into wine competitions on the east and west coasts to get broader recognition. The problem with doing that right now is that don’t have enough wine to satisfy demand!
At a tasting at the winery we went through the whole portfolio of current releases. Highlights were the 2012 Terre Blanc, Texas Hill Country ($22), a field blend of 45% Roussanne and 55% Marsanne. Southern Rhône wines that use blends of these grapes as their backbone have a distinctive character that offers an alternative model for fine white wine to the standard fruit forward New World paradigm. They are minerally and heavy in the mouthfeel, as well as having hints of tropical fruit. Wedding Oaks’ Terre Blanc has a nose of mango, hints of honey in the mouth and a long finish all braced by a mineral rich frame.
The 2012 Tioja, Texas High Plains ($24) has a synthesized name constructed from the words ‘Texas Rioja’. This 80% Tempranillo, 10% Mourvedre and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon blend is all from the Texas High Plains AVA. This wine is aged in used French oak. The nose is red fruit (raspberries, cherries) with a pleasant note of cedar. The flavors are fruit forward with those raspberries again with soft tannins and a long pleasant finish.
Adams’ reasoning behind the use of used French oak is that “In my opinion, the unabashed use of new oak barrels can create a wine overpowered with wood and smoke characters, masking the true fruit quality. I like to use one-year-old barrels because the microoxygenation that takes place thru’ the pores in the wood imparts a softness to the finished wine that complements the fruit-forward wines we produce”.
The 2010 Sangiovese, Texas High Plains ($25) is made from grapes planted by one of the fathers of the Texas wine industry, “Doc” McPherson, in 1975. It won the Gusto “Texas vs. The World” Sangiovese tasting in Dallas. I was struck with how close to the grape’s Italian origins it was in character. The nose has cherries, and in the mouth the wine has distinct Sangiovese flavors and a high acid level. This would be great with game or steak.
Wedding Oak is also making wines from Vermentino, Trebbiano, Carignan, Viognier and Muscat Canelli. Some of the whites are medium sweet or sweet. In all, this looks like an astute piece of experimentation in the winery’s early days. One experiment coming down the pike is what Adams calls “an awesome 2012 Tempranillo” She is also pleased with the overall quality of the 2013 vintage (currently in barrel) which includes Sangiovese, Syrah, Tannat and Tempranillo.
Disclosure: Wedding Oak Winery provided the tasting described in this article. I paid all my other costs, including transport to the winery in San Saba.
Postscript: We found our way down to Wedding Oak Winery and Vineyards with the help of the Texas Wine & Trail App for Android and iPhone. It provides a wealth of other features including letting you log notes of wines and locate nearby restaurants and accommodations. Note: I write for Texas Wine & Trail but do not receive any payment for recommending this app.