In the video above, Gabe Parker, owner of Homestead Winery, discusses the winery’s La Bodega de Mitchell sherry with Andrew Chalk. Below, is Chalk’s report on the sherry production at Homestead Winery.
Every now and again, you discover a really memorable wine. It usually happens when you least expect it. Such was the case on Labor Day when I decided to spend the day traveling the Munson Wine Trail and started at Homestead Winery in Ivanhoe. The visit started typically enough. We were taken through the range of Homestead wines from dry whites to, reds, to sweet wines. The surprise came right at the end when owner Gabe Parker said, “Have you tried our sherry?” That caught my attention. Outside its traditional home in Spain, a wine labeled ‘sherry’ is usually a bad wine cut with cheap brandy to mask its ‘unsaleability’ (Ed. note: new word, Kirk.).
Gabe was insistent and thrust a glass of a pale brown liquid into my hand. It was the right color for an Oloroso sherry certainly, but that is the easiest characteristic of a wine to replicate (just play around with the Deputy Dawg Chemistry Set for a bit). I smelled it and discovered a nutty, slightly orangey nose of genuine Oloroso sherry. One sip and the caramel and earthy flavors of sherry wrapped in complex patterns around my tongue. There is a hint in the nose and the mouth of the spirit used in fortification. This wine is definitely sweet, but not cloying. How can they do this, I wonder, without the sine qua non of sherry production, the solera?
A solera is an elaborate chain (or stack) of barrels in which, each year, part of one barrel is transferred to the next and the oldest liquid is poured off and bottled. A little reflection allows one to conclude that under this system there is always some of the earliest wine in the solera. A little math allows one to conclude that the average age of the wine bottled at the end asymptotically approaches a fixed value (if all else is constant). The important point is that since it contains so many vintages, and is aged so long, that the flavor is immensely complex and little affected by vintage variations in climate or harvesting practices. The wine truly develops a house style that depends in part on the exact details (such as its length) of the solera process. Sherry is not the only beverage aged this way but it is the best known.
“We have a solera,” says Gabe matter-of-factly. Dr. Roy Mitchell, Homestead’s winemaker, started it in 1973. (That’s when Lynyrd Skynyrd released Free Bird and a new AMC Javelin set you back $2,900.) Homestead’s sherry produced is currently pretty much at the peak of the ageing quality that can be expected from that solera. It started life as blend of several grapes (mostly Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc) and was made into table wine. Next, it was fortified with a fairly prosaic brandy. Then it was aged for several years, sometimes as long as a decade, either in bottles or in sealed wooden barrels. The fruit declined and an oxidized, nutty quality developed in the wine. At this point, the wine would be written off as table wine. But, if one is making sherry, the wine is now ready to enter the solera. Homestead’s solera consists of five levels, each one an American Oak barrel made by a cooper in Missouri who also supplies establishments in Portugal and Spain. At Homestead, only a third of a barrel of sherry is removed each year, so annual production is miniscule (less than 100 cases).
The winemaker behind this 30-plus year project is the well-respected Dr. Roy Mitchell. Mitchell, now a retired chemistry professor, was one of the pioneers of the Texas wine industry and worked with wineries such as Llano Estacado, Cap Rock, and Pheasant Ridge. He taught at Grayson County College’s Viticulture and Enology program and Gabe Parker estimates that Mitchell has taught over half of the winemakers in Texas. His sherry is just one of many of his wines that have won prizes.
Homestead Winery at Ivanhoe is open Fridays through Sundays. The tasting room is an old schoolhouse. Its diminutive size suggests that childhood obesity may have been less of a problem 50 years ago. Homestead also has a winery in Grapevine and a tasting room in downtown Denison. Check out a video report here.