It's a little-known fact that the Texas winemaking tradition is the oldest in the country. Perhaps even more obscure is the fact that Texas vineyards saved the European wine industry in the 1800s. A fungus nearly wiped out European vineyards in the 1800s, which survived by importing rootstock from the United States. Unfortunately, phylloxera came with it, devastating six-million acres of European vineyards. Horticulturist Thomas Munson then developed a Texas hybrid resistance to phylloxera, which was grafted with French plants to save their vineyards. This, by the way, explains all the Texan statues throughout France.
Today, the Texan Hill Country is a first-class food and wine destination, but like the early naysayers of Napa and Sonoma, Texas had its critics early on. Now however, its reputation is starting to catch up with its heritage. Wild grapes have always been abundant along Texas's rivers and streams, and Spanish missionaries planted the first vineyard near El Paso as early as the mid-1600s. A few centuries later, the art of winemaking got a boost from European immigrants, who brought cuttings from their homeland. Now, half of the state's wineries are found among the cedar trees and prickly pear cacti of the Hill Country, where sandy-loam soil and moderate weather promote robust fruit growth.
The gateway to the Hill Country Wine Trail is a small town called Fredericksburg, equidistant from San Antonio or Austin. Fredericksburg is the Texas you expect: pastoral, historical and genuinely hospitable. What's unexpected is its unique German flavor, rooted deeper than a Texas oak. Also famous for its succulent peaches and 1940s-era nostalgia, Fredericksburg is an enchanting weekend getaway.
Your home away from home for the next several days is likely to be one of 300 B&Bs, inns or cottages in the vicinity. We recommend the Full Moon Inn, an original 1800s log cabin with all the modern amenities, or the Queen Anne, where Victorian romance lives on, with the added perks of an outdoor hot tub and a full gourmet breakfast. Or consult local booking services like Gästehaus Schmidt or Absolute Charm to arrange a place that suits your itinerary and budget. If rustic isn't your style, the Inn on Barons Creek offers executive comfort and an adjoining day spa two blocks from Main Street. A bit further out of town is an unforgettable lodging experience — a modern Mayan village called Trois Estate.
Relatively spared by crowds (mostly day-trippers from San Antonio and Austin) and friendly on the wallet, the Hill Country Wine Trail is a rare domestic option for touring and tasting wines in the European tradition. Renting a car remains a convenient way to visit each winery, although a number of companies — such as Texas Wine Tours or Fredericksburg Limo & Wine Tours — allow you a little extra indulgence in the local fruit. Tours start in the $100 range, and include the tasting fees at several wineries.
There are about a dozen wineries along the 15-minute drive east from Fredericksburg to Stonewall, Texas. Start here and slowly make your way back to downtown Fredericksburg. A great first stop is Pedernales Cellars, whose entire winemaking facilities are underground. More accurately, they're built into the hilly landscape and feature a geothermal cooling system. Tempranillo is the winery's calling card, but don't discount the Garnacha dry rosé, ideal on a hot Texas summer day. Just down the road is Woodrose Winery, whose boutique tasting room is modeled after the Lyndon B. Johnson homestead barn in nearby Johnson City.
A few minutes from here, you'll find yourself at the crown jewel of the tour: Becker Vineyards has 46 acres of French Vinifera vines that grow eight grape varietals. The 10,040 square-foot winery was built in the style of a 19th century German stone barn. Sidle up the antique bar inside to sample the range of award-winning Bordeaux, Burgundian and Rhone-styled wines. The Roussanne, with hints of hazelnut, is a rare white wine that pleases even the red-wine-only drinkers in the crowd. And the patience given to the Claret, matured in French and American oak barrels for 15 months, is definitely worth it. Becker seems to be most proud of another red blend, its signature Raven. The picturesque grounds invite lingering on the covered stone patio, and during May and June, the three-acre lavender fields are in full bloom, creating an unforgettable olfactory experience. You'll want the scent of lavender to stay with you, so thankfully a bevy of handmade soaps, lotions, candles and more are available year-round.
On Saturdays, there's live music at Torre di Pietra on the other side of the highway, sometimes creating a lively scene to go with the tasting. Practically next-door is Grape Creek Vineyards, which claims to be the "Tuscany in Texas." Grape Creek's Viognier suitably captures the essence of Texas wildflowers while the Cabernet Trois (combining three Cabernets) suits the more tannic palate. For something different, try the Grand Rouge, a Sangiovese-Merlot blend with a semi-sweet finish that's served chilled.
A few minutes closer to town is Rancho Ponte Vineyards, a small-production, family-run winery. Though tiny at 20 acres, Rancho Ponte is huge on heritage. Generations of the Ponte family have had large wineries in Italy, South America and California. While drawing on a century of tradition, the Ponte family has brought an adventurous flair to their new Texas environs, with bold blends such as the popular Triple M, a fruit-forward blend of Merlot, Mourvedre and Muscat.
Now that town is only five minutes away, it's time to start thinking about dinner to soak up all that vino. Reservations are a good idea for Friday or Saturday nights at The Nest. A mile off the main drag, this inviting restaurant, with an intimate ambiance, is a renovated home from the early 1900s residing in a residential neighborhood. Chef/owner John Wilkinson's career took him to Europe and The Ritz-Carlton Club, Aspen Highlands, among other kitchens. Entrées like pan-seared sea scallops with a chipotle-lime hollandaise sauce and broiled quail stuffed with bacon, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese are prepared with a perfectionist's flair. If you save room, a dish of lavender ice cream is a sweet ending to a memorable meal.
Of course, there are a number of German restaurants; among the finest is Der Lindenbaum, situated in a cozy limestone structure built by original Fredericksburg settlers over a century ago. In addition to schnitzels, bratwurst and gulasch, you will find less-common German delicacies such as konigsberger klopse and schweinekotellet (The friendly staff will translate for you!).
If you're up for a nightcap, walk next door to the Silver Creek Beer Garden, which features some of the best nightlife in town. The patio, enveloped by a giant, 400-year-old tree, plays host to live music most nights; the beer selection and lively energy are other draws.
* Der Lindenbaum by Carol Barrington; Becker Vineyards tasting room by Trish McCabe Rawls; Torre di Pietra Vineyards by Ken Maxwell - all courtesy of Fredericksburg Convention & Visitor Bureau