Please join me in welcoming BenS as our latest guest contributor! BenS currently wanders the state of Texas seeking oenological delights. What Ben lacks in wine qualifications, he makes up for in passion. Ben hopes to one day become of Wine Man of Letters, as he has started studying for his Certified Specialist of Wine certificate. He also writes for his own blog, Vinotology
Welcome and let’s dive right in!
All sorts of things probably spring to mind when I say Texas – big, oil, Houston we have a problem, wide open spaces, women with big hair, Texas twangs, over the top state pride, cowboys, former presidents who are cowboys – but my guess is that wine probably doesn’t really make it onto most people’s list.
Texas actually has a very rich wine history. Over 100 years before the first consistent grape production began in California, Texas became one of the first states in the US to plant vineyards when Franciscan priests established a vineyard and winery at the Mission of Ysleta in 1662. Although Texas has not followed the same path as California when it comes to wine, you might be surprised to learn that Texas is actually the fifth largest state in the US in wine production and has over 160 wineries. Not only is Texas producing a lot of wine, the wine business is also rapidly growing. As recently as 2003 there were only 54 wineries in the state, so the proliferation of new wineries has been profound.
As Texans are infinitely fond of reminding everyone, Texas is a big state, measuring 268,820 square miles. In a state so large there are bound to be many differences and much diversity among the regions of the state. Texas is currently home to eight different American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Of these eight appellations, the Texas Hill Country and Texas High Plains stand out as the primary grape producing and winemaking AVAs.
The Texas Hill Country has historically been the real epicenter of Texas winemaking. The appellation is the second largest in the United States, covering over 9,000,000 acres, and contains two smaller AVAs – the Bell Mountain and the Fredericksburg AVAs. Despite its enormous size, there are currently less than 1000 acres of grapes planted within the appellation. The real focus in this area is on winemaking. Around 60 wineries are located in this AVA. Fruit is often sourced from other areas of the state, or from out of state growers. You will find a lot of the traditional French varieties being grown in the Texas Hill Country, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay being some of the most common. Other varieties that are fairly commonly grown in this area are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Noir and Riesling.
The other primary appellation in Texas is the Texas High Plains AVA, which was established in 1993. Although smaller than the Hill Country AVA, at 7,680,000 acres it is still an extremely large AVA. The High Plains has become a major producer of wine grapes for wineries around the state. The area has an elevation of around 3,000 feet, is semi-arid and has long, hot summer days and cool nights, making it well suited to the production of grapes. Some of the oldest and largest wineries in the state are found in the Texas High Plains, including Llano Estacado Winery and Pheasant Ridge Winery. Historically, the same trio of French varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay) that are featured in the Texas Hill Country have also been featured in the Texas High Plains, although growers have been experimenting with a number of other varieties recently.
The other AVAs in Texas are producing significantly fewer grapes and less wine. The other AVAs are the Escondido Valley (which has no wineries, but does produce some grapes), the Mesilla Valley (most of this AVA is located in New Mexico), and the Texoma AVA. The Texoma AVA might be most well known as the AVA where Thomas Volney Munson discovered the solution to the French phylloxera epidemic, making it a major contributor to the wine world.
Just like anywhere else, there are a number of challenges to making wine in Texas. One of the biggest challenges is that demand for Texas grapes greatly exceeds the supply. While the number of wineries has increased from 54 in 2003 to over 160 in 2009, the number of acres producing grapes during that time has remained fairly static, averaging somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 acres a year. Most Texas wineries would like to be able to make more wines from Texas grapes, especially among their top tier wines, but Texas grape production has not kept up with the demand. Texas grower Neil Newsome was quoted in a recent article as saying, “All these wineries would prefer to be buying Texas grapes for their tier-one wines, and we’re not even growing enough to fill that need. We currently have 3,600 acres planted to winegrapes in Texas. Just to support the tier-one wines would take 5,000 or 6,000 acres. That doesn’t even count the under-$10 wines made by the big wineries like St. Genevieve, Llano Estacado, Fall Creek and Messina Hof. If they wanted to buy Texas grapes, we’d probably need 12,000 acres.” According to a quote in the same article from the CEO of the largest winery in Texas, Pat Prendergast of Mesa, “We produce 2 million gallons of wine per year, which is about 11,500 tons. In a good year, Texas grape growers produce 4,500 tons for the whole state–and that’s an optimistic view….” The shortage of Texas grapes has had an additional effect; it has made Texas grapes more expensive than fruit sourced from other locations, such as California. More expensive grapes mean more expensive wines. Top flight Texas wines are often known to be priced relatively high.
As in every other region, weather, pests, and diseases can also be a factor in Texas. Texas vineyards often struggle with late season freezes, hail, and very hot summers. Vineyards in all areas of the state have also often had to fight with Pierce’s Disease, which is caused by a bacteria spread by certain insects. Several Texas wineries have had success with growing varieties that are resistant to Pierce’s Disease, including Blanc DuBois and Lenoir, also known as “Black Spanish”. Wines made from these grapes might be less well known than the French varietals that have been grown around the state, but they show the potential to become expressive of Texas terroir.
There are some other varieties that are better known that are also showing a lot of potential in Texas. One of the varieties that is being produced more and more around the state is Tempranillo. Tempranillo responds very well to some of the conditions in Texas, ripening under hot, dry conditions and resisting late spring freezes better than some varieties. Several Italian varieties have also been performing well in Texas, including Sangiovese, Dolcetto, and Vermentino. The Mediterranean climate found in much of Texas seems to allow some of these varieties to flourish and may ultimately express Texas terroir better than many of the French varietals that have been grown in the past.
Texas wine seems to be reaching a crossroads. Many growers across the state are experimenting more with different varieties of grapes, seeing what really works best with Texas climate and soil. I view the state as being like the college student who goes on a trip to Europe to “find themselves”. Texas is really trying to find its own identity right now, and is looking for the grapes that will ultimately be the most expressive of a unique Texas terroir. For some wineries and some areas, that may ultimately be found in French Bordeaux varietals, but when I talk to friends of mine who own vineyards in the area, I get a picture of a Texas wine landscape ten years from now that will hardly resemble the one that you find today. Already the production of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay has decreased within the state, and an increased diversity in less common varieties can be seen. There’s a lot of growing room for wine in Texas, both in the volume of wine grapes being produced in the state, and in the distinctiveness of Texas wine. It’s hard to predict what the future holds, but it should be fun to find out.