They say that everything’s bigger in Texas, and while the state’s wine industry may not be quite bigger than California’s, or Washington’s, or Oregon’s, it certainly has come a long way in a short amount of time. In fact, the multi-billion dollar Texas wine industry vies for fourth place in size with New York from year to year, despite the fact that a wine lover is far more likely to find a New York State wine in their shop than one from Texas.
So what’s the deal with Texas wine, anyway? Is it something to keep an eye on? Or is it more of a tourism-driven industry, as many states’ wine industries are? Here’s the low-down on Texas wine.
History of Texas Wine
While Texas’s recent wine history may not be very long, it was historically very important to the origin of American wine. It was in Texas, right near the border of Mexico and New Mexico, that Spanish missionaries established the first vineyard in North America in 1662. Grapevines remained in the state in the following centuries – the state’s oldest winery still in operation is Val Verde, established in 1883 – but did not hold as much importance as other agriculture.
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The modern, pre-Prohibition Texas wine industry was led by Clinton ‘Doc’ McPherson, then a chemistry professor at Texas Tech University, who traveled to wine regions across the U.S. in the 1960s in order to research both vitis vinifera and hybrid grape varieties. Along with his business partner Bob Reed, Doc planted an experimental vineyard in 1966 in the Texas High Plains comprised of 140 different grape varieties in order to see which grapes worked best in the local climate and soil. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the most popular international grapes that thrived the most, but more obscure varieties: Grenache, Ruby Cabernet, Tempranillo, Muscat, Chenin Blanc, and even Viura vines smuggled into the country from Spain.
Unfortunately, when Doc and Reed founded Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock several years later, in 1976, many of these original vines were ripped out of the vineyard in favor of more recognizable varieties. “At the time the idea was that we needed to focus on what could sell – the big names – Cabernet [Sauvignon], Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, even if it wasn’t what ultimately produced the best wine,” notes Kim McPherson, Doc’s son and current winemaker and proprietor of McPherson Cellars, who at that time worked with his father as winemaker for Llano Estacado. “It’s now one of my biggest regrets – I wish we could go back. If I could get my hands on Viura cuttings, I’d plant it here in a heartbeat.”
Other leaders of the Texas wine industry were Ed Ahler of Fall Creek Winery, known for establishing vineyards in Texas Hill Country soon after Doc and Reed founded Llano Estacado in the High Plains; Richard Becker of Becker Vineyards, who put the Viognier grape on the map in-state; and the proprietors of Messina Hof, a pioneer of East Texas winemaking. It wasn’t until 2005, however, that real growth occurred in the industry, largely thanks to the state passing its direct shipping bill, allowing Texas wineries to ship directly to consumers both in and out of state. Since then, the number of bonded wineries has risen from 40 to nearly 400, and there has been a recent charge led by small, experimental producers to plant new grapes and use only Texas fruit for Texas wines – but more on that later.
Today Texas has over 4,000 acres of vineyards covering eight established AVAs and beyond. While the climates of all Texas winemaking regions are not the same – the state is roughly the same size as the country of France, after all – there are a few general climactic similarities. Texas generally has a warm continental climate, similar to many regions of Portugal, Spain, central Italy, and the Rhône Valley. But despite what anyone who has experienced a summer day in Dallas or Houston might think, heat is not the state’s biggest climactic challenge. The biggest issues are spring frost, hail, and lack of water. This is why many recognizable grapes, such as Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay, are not well suited to Texas winemaking, as they bud early and therefore could be decimated by frost.
Texas High Plains
The second largest AVA in Texas, Texas High Plains covers 8 million acres in the state’s panhandle around Lubbock. As the name implies, the region is located west of the elevation line that separates the high plains from the lower plains, and the elevation of the vineyards rises from 3000 to 4100 feet. Though 80 percent of Texas’s wine grapes come from the High Plains, it still comprises only a small proportion of the region’s agriculture; cotton and wheat far outpace vineyards.
As McPherson puts it, “I don’t really think there are other regions that show as much promise as the High Plains.” The climate here is more continental and semi-arid, with rainfall averaging around 18 inches, causing many vineyards to require irrigation, but the region benefits from well-drained soils and intense wind to dry out vineyards and help prevent against spring frost and disease. While temperatures are more moderate throughout the year, with the excellent combo of a lower annual temperature yet rarely hitting temps below freezing, Texas High Plains is also one of the only Texas wine regions with diurnal temperature variation during the ripening season (in June, for instance, morning temperatures in Lubbock were 60 degrees Fahrenheit, just a few more than in Napa, according to McPherson), a key to balancing ripe flavors with acidity. These factors, as well as the soil variation and area available to plant, make Texas High Plains the likely hub of the state’s quality winemaking future.
Texas Hill Country
Clocking in at a whopping 9 million acres, Texas Hill Country is the largest AVA in Texas and the second largest in the country, after the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA. Located just northwest of Austin and San Antonio, the landscape is comprised largely of low, rolling hills and steep canyons, with the highest elevations – maxing out around 2100 feet – located in central and western Texas. Drought is relatively less of a problem in Texas Hill Country, with the region receiving 24 to 28 inches of rainfall a year, and humidity is increased because of the region’s proximity to the warm Gulf of Mexico.
Much of the region lies on a base of limestone soil, giving great structural and aromatic potential for the wines, but Texas Hill Country doesn’t see as much diurnal variation during the growing season as other regions, a necessity in warmer winegrowing regions in order to preserve acidity. The weather can also vary from year to year, and frosts are generally harsher in Texas Hill Country, making it a more challenging region for winegrowing. Regardless, when it comes to Texas Hill Country wines, “The aromatics are second to none,” says Brock Estes, owner and winemaker of Fly Gap Winery. “The fruit might not quite be as focused on its own as High Plains fruit, but blended wines are killer.”
Texas’s first AVA, created in 1986, is a small region located within the large Texas Hill Country, with about fifty square acres planted north of Fredericksburg.
Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country
A sub-region of Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg is known for Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, and Pinot Noir.
Escondido Valley is a small lower-lying valley in West Texas, located just west of Texas Hill Country and south of Texas High Plains.
Texas Davis Mountains
Located in Far West Texas, getting close to the Mexican border, is the Texas Davis Mountains AVA, which sees the benefit of a 4500-to-8300-foot elevation, making it cooler and wetter than other parts of Texas. There aren’t too many vineyards located here yet, but good Cabernet Sauvignon is coming out of this region.
Though Texoma AVA is technically Texas’s youngest AVA (it was formally established in 2005), it actually played an essential role in the history of the world’s viticulture; it was here that viticulturist Thomas Volney Munson first grafted vitis vinifera onto American rootstocks in order to prevent phylloxera, previously thought to be unstoppable. It is located in the northern part of the state along the Oklahoma border and the Red River, and despite being a more challenging vine-growing area, winemakers here are showing promise with Merlot, Tempranillo, and Syrah.
A shared AVA between the states of New Mexico and Texas, Mesilla Valley is producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Zinfandel. The wines are usually consumed locally and rarely found outside the region.
Partially because Texas is such a young winemaking region with a recent explosion of new wineries, there is a plethora of grape varieties grown in the state, from popular international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to less widely planted varieties like Tempranillo and Sangiovese. It’s important to note that state laws allow wines to be labeled as Texas wine if 75 percent of the fruit that goes into the bottle is from the state itself – meaning that 25 percent of the fruit could come from anywhere, making the wine arguably less representative of its state of origin. This has been a necessity in the past because winemaking has outpaced the agricultural side of the industry, meaning that there simply wasn’t enough reliable fruit to make Texas wine on a large scale. With the recent surge of energy into the industry, however, some producers are pushing to change regulations, proposing a law that would require Texas-labeled wines to be made from 100 percent Texas fruit in five years.
In the 1980s, classic Bordeaux and Burgundian grape varieties dominated vineyards, as they sold more easily. This was also a time when the climate was somewhat cooler than it is today, so while Merlot and Chardonnay still may not have been the most suitable grapes for the climate, winemakers were actually able to make warm-weather versions of these wines. Now producers are focusing more on varieties that work well with the climate and soil of Texas’s wine regions, rather than ones with international acclaim. “I am a big proponent of staying away from Bordeaux or Burgundy varieties – they just do not make the beautiful wines like they do on the West Coast,” says McPherson. “If people could get behind Rhône varieties and Spanish varieties, those that thrive in warmer climates, I think we could make so much more of a name for ourselves as far as Texas terroir.”
Indeed, Rhône varieties do seem to be the ones gaining the most attention in Texas. Mourvèdre in particular shows the most promise to become Texas’s “signature” wine grape, as it buds late, missing late frosts, and is easy to grow. Tannat, found mostly in Southwest France and Uruguay, also grows well in Texas since it can stand up to heat and grows easily. Carignan, Cinsault, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and other Italian grape varieties also tend to be good choices, as they hold their acidity during the heat spikes of the summertime.
White wines are also being made in Texas, with a smattering of less-recognizable grapes leading the way. Viognier, Roussanne, and Picpoul tend to do well, as do Trebbiano Toscano and Vermentino. Chenin Blanc and Albariño also work to a lesser extent than other white grape varieties.
While, as in many other states, international grapes still abound due to their easy consumer recognition, much of the new winemaking energy is focused on either single-varietal or blended wines made from these less-common grapes. “My big thing is not to focus on making blends that are familiar to people, like GSM, for instance, but rather to make up new blends,” particularly blends that would do well with the Texas climate, notes Estes.
The future of Texas wine
There are different opinions as to what the future of Texas wine holds, but a few themes are common. First, Texas wineries need to expand beyond tourism, which is the one piece of the industry that is already very well established. Now, it’s time for the next step: “We just need to change the mindset on Texas … the wines need to be in restaurants and on dinner tables, not just poured through in tasting rooms for tourists,” says McPherson. Second, the agricultural growth of the industry needs to meet the production growth. “Out of 400 bonded wineries, there are only a handful that actually grow their own grapes to make their wines,” says Bill Blackmon, proprietor of William Chris Vineyards, Texas’s largest producer of 100 percent Texas-grown wines and a leader in the modern Texas wine movement. “To sustain our growth in popularity, we need to get a handle on that.” Estes is optimistic: “I think in the next five to 10 years we will see a boom in planting and focus on terroir driven sites,” he says.
And finally, producers need to turn toward each other in order to make this happen. “Wineries and vineyards need to understand that we’re in this together,” Blackmon asserts. “Growers need to grow grapes that the wineries need, and wineries need to support the grower to build the industry.” McPherson agrees. “The potential and promise is there if we work together — the growers, the winemakers, the consumers,” he says. “If we are going to build this, it needs to be on the backs of all of us fighting for it together, not competing.”
It’s clear that the Texas wine industry is still finding a single identity, and it’s unlikely that it will do so anytime soon. The plus side to this, however, is that there is a huge amount of room for experimentation and diversity from smaller producers that want to get in on the ground floor. Take for instance Southold Farm + Cellars, a young North Fork of Long Island-based winery with artisanal cuvees sprinkled across some of NYC’s top wine lists. When their Long Island town was unwilling to approve the licenses they needed to expand their business, where did Southold turn? To Texas Hill Country, where the winemakers have found vineyards with great potential to start their winery anew. Blackmon echoes this sentiment. “It’s easier to do business here than many [other] places,” he says, “and the lack of restrictions on businesses here will also keep attracting new winemakers to the area. I don’t see growth slowing down. The ability to do what you want to do or be as creative as you want to be is wide open to you in the state of Texas.”