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Wine Tasting at Barr Mansion

Written by , published September 20, 2011

pinot-gris-544I’m learning to love wine. A few years ago, a friend organized a series of wine-tasting parties based on recommendations from Master Sommelier (and SMU graduate) Andrea Immer Robinson’s book Great Wine Made Simple. As we progressed through the first chapters—learning to differentiate between light-bodied and full-bodied styles, identifying characteristics of “The Big Six Grapes” (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz), and building a vocabulary of “flavor words” like tannic and oaky—I began to think about how the pleasures of drinking wine encompasses not only taste, but also tradition, history, agriculture, geography, chemistry, geology, and travel. Robinson, now one of fewer than 20 women in the world who have been made Master Sommeliers by the Court of Master Sommeliers, makes the wine world approachable and fun. After all, her own education began while she was a college student in Dallas, when she took a wine-tasting class at The Grape, a popular restaurant on Greenville Avenue.

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a wine-tasting event at Austin’s Barr Mansion and Artisan Ballroom, a beautiful event site in northeast Austin that is the nation’s only certified organic event facility. A two-story clapboard Victorian home anchors the site of a former farmstead, and past a series of native-plant gardens and sprawling oak trees (a Certified Wildlife Habitat), a modern, glass-and-cedar ballroom (recently rebuilt after being destroyed by fire last year) hosts events for up to 600 people.

This particular tasting, hosted by the Loire Valley Wine Bureau, offered opportunities to sample an array of delicious varietals from France’s Loire Valley, which benefits from the temperature-moderating influence of the Atlantic Ocean. There are some 65 appellations (wine-growing regions) in the Loire Valley, and the primary grapes used include Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and a grape called Melon de Bourgogne, which lends itself to crisp, dry whites.

Since one of my favorite varietals is Sauvignon Blanc—a grape used in Texas wines produced by Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards, and other Texas producers—I was particularly interested in exploring the differences in style between French versions (often made in the Sancerre appellations) compare. This, I learned, is a classic “Old World/New World” comparison.

Seems to me that Texas Sauvignon Blancs, like their New World siblings from Australia and New Zealand, seem slightly effervescent and bright, while the French Sancerres seemed creamier, with an expressive floral nose and a still-spritely mouthfeel.

I enjoyed chatting with an aspiring sommelier named Justine Langston, who currently buys wine for the small wine-bar chain Crú and will be sitting for her Sommelier Certification exam in October. Langston told me that in Europe, wine-drinking is rarely intimidating, and is in fact transcends all classes of society. The days of snooty sommeliers in America is over, she assured me.

In a room filled with so many outstanding French wines—some from vineyards that date back hundreds of years—I couldn’t help but wonder how the young Texas wine industry compares. One vendor told me that the difference wasn’t necessarily a difference in quality, even as he acknowledged the challenges of growing certain varietals in Texas simply because it gets so dang hot here. So we grow the ones that DO perform well here, he said—much as vineyards do the world over. The difference, this fellow told me, is more a result of scale. Texan growers simply cannot produce as much wine as large vineyards in France, Italy, Chile, and Spain, for example—and so in general, a high-quality Texan wine costs more than a comparable bottle from more-established wine-producing regions. Any thoughts on this, wine folks out there?

I don’t mind paying a few extra dollars to support a local industry. But I still like to experience how a style is made in other parts of the world—to compare, contrast, and become more knowledgeable. It’s a fun endeavor, and one of the few educational paths where repeating a lesson is encouraged. Cheers.

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