New World / Old World

by Russ Kane

The congregation assembled at Mark’s American Cuisine, a softly lit restaurant housed in an old, renovated Montrose-area church in Houston. We were ushered to the “Cloisters,” where 40 places were set for dinner, but something was amiss. The menus, which normally identify the winery and wine for each course, provided only the generic grape names of Vermentino, sangiovese and aglianico.

As we took our seats, Marcus Gausepohl, the restaurant’s wine director, announced, “I hope you’re ready for an interesting evening of wine. It’s going to be part wine dinner and part ‘Pepsi Challenge.’” Then, with a boyish smile, winery owner Stan Duchman greeted us and started pouring wines from unmarked carafes.

With each of the first three courses, we were poured two wines side-by-side and “blinded”—meaning the attendees (myself included) didn’t know which of the two wines was from Duchman Family Winery in Driftwood, Texas, and which was from Italy. The path to this evening actually began back in 2004, when Drs. Lisa and Stan Duchman founded their Hill Country winery. Their love of unique Italian grape varietals and their knowledge of Mediterranean growing conditions in Texas and Italy started a quest to bring world-class winemaking to the Texas Hill Country.

Long-time Texas winemaker Mark Penna teamed up with Stan Duchman and then-apprentice/now-winemaker Dave Reilly. Together, they experimented with making wines from favored Italian varietals instead of the better known cabernet, merlot, chardonnay and pinot noir that originate from cooler climes in central and northern France. The trio linked up with Texas winegrowing consultant Bobby Cox, the Bingham and Oswald families from the Texas High Plains and the Roberts family of Salt Lick fame. Together, they planted the grapes that allowed this wine event to become a reality. According to Reilly, “As a result of these relationships, Vermentino, Montepulciano, aglianico and sangiovese became our go-to varieties that we think compare favorably with their Old World counterparts.”

Back at dinner, shortly after the first two courses were served, attendees reached a consensus that—based on the varietal characteristics of the Duchman’s “Tex-Med” wines and the wines that actually came from Mediterranean countries—it was hard to tell the difference. Crisp lemon citrus and herbal aromas drove both Vermentinos, while the sangiovese rosés titillated the palate with tart red cherry and stony mineral notes. While similarities prevailed, most agreed that the generally “riper” wines were likely from the Duchman’s vines because of the more intense sun exposure and temperatures in Texas. However, this could also be a result of stylistic decisions made by the winery.

The most difficult challenge came with the third course, which paired Duchman’s Texas aglianico with the one from Italy. This ancient grape, originating from southern Italy (near the instep of the Italian “boot”), has been cultivated there for more than 2,500 years. Because this grape has only been growing in Texas for a little more than a decade, conventional wisdom would predict that the differences would be striking. But surprisingly, both wines came through with classic deep ruby color and black fruit and earthy aromas held together with a firm tannic grip. They were more immediate-family members than distant cousins.

I later asked both Duchman and Gausepohl how the competitive wine event came about. “Interestingly,” Duchman said, “I was visiting with Certified Master Sommelier Craig Collins at Italic in Austin. He commented to me about the challenge of persuading customers to give Texas wines a real chance. This got me thinking.” Gausepohl added, “After Stan and I discussed it, we thought it would be fun to do this event as a blind-tasting dinner. I believed that the Duchmans had the right varieties for Texas, but we would let everyone determine if they were doing it right and could be competitive on the world stage.”

Seems that they are, in fact, doing it right.

THE CONTENDERS: Duchman Vermentino, Bingham Family Vineyards, 2014, Texas High Plains vs. Pala “I Fiori” Vermentino, 2012, Sardinia
Duchman Rosé of Sangiovese, Salt Lick Vineyard, 2014, Texas Hill Country vs. Bibi Graetz Casamatta Rosato, 2013, Tuscano, Italy
Duchman Aglianico, Oswald Vineyard, 2011, Texas High Plains vs. Terredora di Paolo, 2012, Campania, Italy