Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sipping Port: Wine Road 290 Port & Pairings

This past weekend saw the start of the 2014 wine season in the Texas Hill Country. The first Wine Road 290 event -- Port and Pairings -- drew Sean and me out to sip some fortified wine and nibble on sweet delectables. If this first event is an indication, 2014 will provide lots of fun.

We were blessed. As I write this the day after, the clouds are keeping a dreary pall on the day after some brief sprinkles, and the promised warmth is being kept at bay. That was not the case yesterday. The weather cooperated, providing a comfortable day with abundant sunshine. When we started before noon, there was still a crispness in the air that we stopped noticing as the the sun warmed everything. So of course, as the day wore on, more and more people found their way to the wineries along Highway 290.

Wine Road 290

For those unfamiliar, Wine Road 290 is an affiliation of wineries more or less on the stretch of Highway 290 between Fredericksburg and Johnson City. Not every winery along thew way is a member, but most are, including 4.0 Cellars. The group participates in six scheduled events throughout the year. These events are all pairing events.

For each themed event, the winery pairs one of their wines with a specific food choice. Sometimes the focus is on the wine, as was the case this time: the wineries paired one of their ports (or another wine if they didn't have a port) with a food item of their choice. Other events, like February's Rajin Cajun, will focus on food. In a case like this, the winery will choose a food pairing that matches the theme and pair a wine with that food.

Oftentimes when wine trails offer events like this, there is a fee or a needed ticket. That is never the case along Wine Road 290. No ticket is needed and the pairing is always free. Some wineries make the tasting completely free. In many of these cases, a separate tasting area is set-up with the food and the wine. For others, the food pairing is free but the wine tasting may not be; in those cases, a tasting must be purchased as well. Often, if a tasting is required, many wineries will add the pairing wine as a special bonus, a free additional taste with your tasting.

Port and Pairings

When I went out on Saturday, I stopped by my all-time favorite places. I drank great port at two of my spots, got to try a young port still in barrel at another, and sipped on a nice red wine at the last. It all depends on what wines the winery has available. All provided wonderful sweets that paired well with the wines.

As for the sweets, most wineries made their own. This is always a treat because most of these wineries have some incredible cooks hiding among their ranks. And if you needed further proof of that, just check out ABC's The Taste to see Hill Country winemaker Don Pullum (Mason County grape grower, winemaker for Sandstone Cellars and Akashic Vineyards, and consultant to [Wine Road 290 winery] Torre id Pietra, Fly Gap, and Pontotoc) as he wows the judges with his culinary delights. Some wineries also opt to bring in professional culinary talent to provide the pairing; one winery I visited did that. Among the member wineries, Grape Creek usually enlists the services of local chef Russ Brutwell of Cabernet Grill; I recommend visiting them during an event if the opportunity arises.

Ready Ports -- Pedernales Cellars & William Chris

From left to right: Flourless chocolate cake, Pedernales Ruby Port, and El Rey Chocolates
 During my time out I tasted two well received ports, the Ruby port at Pedernales Cellars and the Jacquez from William Chris. At Pedernales, the Ruby port is a blend of Texas grapes to create a bright, fruit forward port. In the kitchen at Pedernales, they baked up a brownie with port icing and a flourless chocolate cake (both using El Rey chocolates) that brought out the rich flavors that are subtle in this port. They also had my favorite local shop, Chocolat, prepare a beautiful chocolate covered cherry.

Port Brownies and chocolate covered cherries from Chocolat
In Hye at William Chris, we sipped on the Black Spanish Jacquez. This robust port with a mix of caramel and fruit notes was my favorite pairing of the day. A supple and simple buttermilk pie made the port darken and soften, bring out the more nutty flavors in this already rich wine. I could have sampled this all day. A side note on William Chris: in the next few months, at least one sparkling Blanc du Bois will be available with a second one later on.
Homemade Buttermilk Pie and Jacquez

Port in Training -- Hye Meadow

Also in Hye, the newest winery to the trail, Hye Meadow, provided one of the most unique tastes of the day. Winemaker Jeff Ivy brought out his new Syrah port for sampling. The wine has only been in the barrel since October and will remain their for two whole years before bottling. Since this wine is far from ready, Jeff rolled out two barrels to the winery's scenic back porch. It was exciting to taste an infant port. The nose shows a lot of potential character with my favorite go-to notes, such as nut and caramel with some rich chocolate. The taste though is a right now a darkened berry that is full and alive. I would liken the taste to a bold red rather than a port; however, right at the tail end I noticed a hint of that aroma. I have high hopes for this port, and I can't wait to see how it progresses.

Winemake Jeff Ivy with the Syrah port
Though the port was the star, I can't leave out my favorite baked good of the day. Owner Mike Batek brought brownies from a family recipe. This moist and rich brownie was a treat all on its own, but it did bring out that chocolate note in the fledgling port.

Beautiful Brownies
And for those that can't wait for the port, the next month or so will see the release of some incredible new reds, including Tempranillo, Dolcetto, and Aglianico among others.

A Taste of Wine and Chocolate -- Hilmy Cellars

Our last official Wine Road 290 stop was at Hilmy Cellars. Though there will be a port n the future, there isn't one yet. Instead, the crew there brought out the new Politics and Religion -- a supple red blend -- for the pairing. Kuntry Kunfekshuns brought out some final sample but also paired their Choco Krossie with the wine. This chunk of chocolate brought together rolled oats, nuts, and some cayenne for a fine snack. To be honest, I could have eaten that all day long. 
Choco Krossie in the afternoon sun
 This confection provide a more earthy base -- thanks to the nuts and oats -- that worked well with the young wine (Politics and Religion hasn't been in the bottle long). The wine is currently a bit tight -- a good decanting helps bring this wine out -- so pairing it with a stronger chocolate helped to even out the very bright fruit notes that dominate what will be a subtle and seductive red blend. Though I didn't save my bite, I now wonder if it would have also paired with the winery's very fine Gewurtraminer.

A Sunny 2014

By the end of the day, we slipped out of a very busy and bustling Hilmy. Though are first few stops were a bit quiet, for a Saturday, by the end, the day brought lots of eager folks out to taste great sweet wine and delicious treats. January is often a slow time out along the trail, but that was far from what we saw. It looks like 2014 is off to a great start. And it tasted terrific too.

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