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Feature Article from the November 2009 Magazine Issue
 
 

Varieties to Hang a Hat On

Texas High Plains growers like hardy Tempranillo and Viognier

 
by Kim Pierce
 
Ed Hellman Texas
 
Ed Hellman, professor of viticulture at Texas
Tech University in Lubbock, said Texas
growers are still in the experimental
stages of deciding which varieties work
best in their soils.

As improbable as it might sound, Tempranillo and Viognier are emerging as two of the most promising winegrape varieties in Texas, where the young wine industry is still trying to discover which grapes it can hang its Stetson on.

“They’re going to be really big—no question,” says Bobby Cox, one of the wisemen of Texas viticulture. The grower and consultant, who walks the vineyards with a pair of pruning shears hitched to his belt, planted his first grapes on the High Plains of West Texas in 1972.

“There’s buzz, and rightly so,” echoes Dr. Ed Hellman, professor of viticulture at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and extension specialist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. “They’ve been in the ground long enough to give reason to be excited about them, but not long enough to be totally convinced that they’re the best variety for us.”

What’s popular
Varieties such as Vermentino, Malbec, Mourvèdre and others are getting noticed, too, for their ability to consistently produce through good years and bad, and to shrug off conditions that ruin other vines.

There’s an urgency to increase grape production levels in Texas. The wine industry has ballooned from 40 wineries in 2000, according to 2008 U.S. Department of Commerce figures, to more than 177 today, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture. Nearly 90% of the growth, notes the Commerce Department, has been in small wineries producing less than 5,000 gallons per year. TDA estimates current wine production at 2.4 million gallons and growing, with 95% consumed within the state. 

Texas is the country’s fifth-largest wine-producer, but TDA’s latest figures show that grapes cultivated on approximately 3,100 acres at 280 family-owned vineyards are not nearly sufficient to supply all the wineries that want them. Two years ago, the TDA set up a grant program to encourage more planting. It awarded $245,250 through the Wine Grape Investment Pilot Grant Program, which will add nearly 134 acres.

Of particular interest among the state’s eight AVAs is the High Plains, a growing area where six of the 10 grant recipients are located. “There are more new acres going in on the High Plains than anyplace else in the state,” says Neal Newsom, one of the High Plains’ premier growers and a past president of the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association.

One reason is the region’s distinctive red dirt, which shows great promise for high-quality grape production. Another is the relatively cheap price of land. “You’ve got land, good rain and low disease pressure,” says Newsom, who started as a cotton farmer and diversified into grapes in 1986. “It’s possible to buy farmland out here that could actually pay for itself. You go anywhere else (in the state), and you buy on speculation.”

As the name suggests, the High Plains is positioned in the sub-region of the nation’s Great Plains, south of the Texas panhandle and surrounding the city of Lubbock. But the desolate expanse of West Texas is deceptive. The land, which appears low and flat, actually rises 3,000 to 4,100 feet above sea level as you go north and west from the Caprock Escarpment that separates it from the low plains at its eastern border. There are 700 grape-producing acres and 200 non-bearing acres, Hellman says, scattered across the AVA’s 8 million acres, the third-largest appellation in the nation.

Despite some thorny challenges, it has much to recommend it. The elevation and isolation mean great light. “There’s no smog, no haze, no mountain ranges blocking light,” Newsom says. “We have ‘severe clear’ most of the time.”

Geology through geography
Moving across the AVA from southwest to northeast, the soil takes on “greater and greater clay content,” says Hellman, who previously was a viticulture extension specialist with Oregon State University.

“Geologically, it’s the breakdown from the Rocky Mountains washed down and blown in. Because the clay particles are smaller and lighter, they blow further than sand. The soil is well-drained due to the rapid permeability of the sand, with enough clay to hold the moisture.”

The average daily temperature in August is between 75º and 80ºF, Hellman says. It’s hot in the daytime and cools off at night. “The brownish-red soils reflect red wavelengths of light back to the grapes, so you get better color, better fruitfulness,” he says. The area also has low rainfall—between 16 and 25 inches per year on average—and low disease pressure, unlike Texas’ more humid AVAs.

The two biggest challenges to grape survival on the High Plains are extreme fluctuations of temperature in the winter, late-spring freezes and hail storms.

In the winter months, it’s not uncommon for temperatures to fluctuate by 30ºF. Many grapes can withstand that. “The problem comes when we get a Blue Norther coming in, and it’s more like 70º,” Cox says. A Blue Norther refers to the cold winds that whip across the plains when a cold front moves in from northwest to southeast, and temperatures plummet in a matter of hours: “Uncharacteristically warm is followed by uncharacteristically cold.” Some vines—a lot of vines—can’t handle that stress.

Some years, Texas also sees cold snaps in the spring. This year, a Blue Norther at the end of March brought snow and freezing temperatures to the High Plains. So late budbreak is a survival requirement for grapevines in West Texas. But a curious thing also happens with the grapes that do well here: They have the ability to snap back even after a freeze or hailstorm takes out the first bud.

“I think secondary bud is almost as fruitful as primary in some of these varietals,” Newsom says. “If we have hail later, they compensate by making the berries bigger. It’s a big myste ry to all of us how some can compensate.”

“Tempranillo is a star,” Cox says. “It’s well adapted. The older vines especially seem to bear up under those sorts of stresses.” But when two winery owners first approached Newsom about planting Tempranillo in 2001, he was so skeptical that he insisted they shoulder some of the cost for the experimental rows. Today, Newsom Vineyards grows 14 acres; about half of that belongs to Inwood Estates Vineyards in Dallas and San Martino Winery & Vineyards in nearby Rockwall.

“It seems to be a consistent producer, even in bad years,” says Newsom, who’s on his fourth year of a bad streak. That includes spring 2006 hailstorms so violent they broke the windshield on his truck and killed his neighbor’s livestock. The late freeze this year demolished his Cabernet Sauvignon.

Weathering the storm
“My Cab is almost gone,” he says. His Cabernet grapes have been so good that his wines were some of the first in the state to earn vineyard designation on the labels. “I have two blocks, and I harvested both, but the yield was extremely low.” That’s 35 of his family’s 95 acres.

Viognier is another grape that’s proving its mettle. “It lives,” Cox says simply. “It recovers well from spring frost,” and it produces excellent wines. “It responds really well to the climate in general, and it’s not particular about the soil.”

Yes, this is finicky Viognier we’re talking about. In the relatively heavier clay of the AVA, it produces a crisp and mineral-y wine, Cox says. In the lighter, sandier soil, it’s more rich and unctuous. “Viognier’s not perfect,” he adds. “It has very delicate cluster attachment to the vine stem, and it’s not resistant to hail damage. But that’s not as big a problem as you might think.”

He estimates that there are about 25 producing acres under cultivation in the High Plains, with an additional 10 acres in an area near Dell City (close to El Paso), which has similar terroir. Hellman estimates the number is closer to 56 acres. “But we’re planting so fast,” Cox says, “that it’s hard to settle down on a number.” A few acres of Tempranillo and Viognier are also planted in North Texas and the Hill Country. 

Another grape, Vermentino from Italy, also has been a surprise. “Among the whites, it’s a standout,” says Mandola Estate Winery winemaker Mark Penna. “We’ve done a good job with Vermentino so far. We’re just beginning to learn how to make it.”

Cliff Bingham, the state’s sole certified organic grapegrower, has the only Vermentino in Texas on 11 acres in Terry County south of Lubbock. “This is pretty young,” says Bingham, one of the TDA grant program recipients.

“This is the third crop I’ve made. The first two crops made fantastic wine, but I had less yield.” He adjusted by delaying pruning, and cutting off fewer buds. And he’s right: It makes an exceptionally good wine.

As for reds, “Mourvèdre; that’s going to be No. 2 behind Tempranillo,” Newsom says, “for the same reasons:” late budbreak, strong secondary bud in bad years, and thick skin to handle rain. “It harvests late,” he adds, “so it spreads the harvest out.” Malbec and Merlot are proving to be strong reds, too, and Texas Sangiovese produces respectable wines.

“We’re still in the experimental stage—testing many different varieties for suitability,” Hellman says. Growers are cautiously optimistic, with an emphasis on caution, because the bottom fell out of the Texas grape market in the early 1990s. “We took a butt-whuppin’,” Cox recalls. But then there were only a handful of wineries, and state legislation has since encouraged and supported the industry.

No one knows where this might go, as growers experiment with grapes such as Aglianico, Syrah, Rousanne, Dolcetto and Carignane, most of which are planted on single-digit acreage. There’s even a young planting of Albariño in Terry County. “It’s a very dynamic situation,” Cox says. “Every season tells us a little more about the adaptability of the grapes.”

Kim Pierce, a frequent contributor and columnist for The Dallas Morning News, has been writing about food and wine for 25 years. To comment on this article, e-mail edit@winesandvines.com.

 
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