The old adage that ‘everything is bigger in Texas’ should be amended to include the state’s will to grow grapes and make premium wines – no matter what. In no other major wine producing American state does the tantalizing exploration of wine’s possibilities continue to embolden and elude the producers of the area.
There’s been just enough success in the Texan wine industry in the last few decades that the Texas Hill Country has grown to be the second largest American Viticultural Area in the country. Texas is currently the fifth largest wine-producing state in the nation.
The Hill Country AVA, located eighty miles north of San Antonio and west of Austin is one of seven wine regions within Texas. The Hill Country is a rugged rolling terrain of scrub land and trees, poor soil and plenty of sunlight. The Hill Country is hot and humid, harvest typically occurs in July – a good two months before most west coast wineries even begin to harvest their grapes.
The climatic intensity of Texas is evocative of southern France, Spain, and Italy. Many of the Hill Country wineries are beginning to focus on varieties that are native to those warmer areas – Pinto Grigio, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Sangiovese, Mourvedre, Grenache, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot – grapes that can withstand the potential for extreme weather conditions (tornados, hurricanes, hail), not to mention a persistent problem with Pierce’s Disease*, mildew, and Texas Root Rot*.
Texas is undoubtedly a place of great potential, yet where some vintages are near-perfect, others can be absolutely devastating.
If history is a clue, every wine region in the world has been wrought with the kind of success and failure that Texas has, but on a more stretched out timeline that lasted decades and centuries: plant diseases, wars, natural disasters, human migration, and contemporary fads have all had their say in how each area grows wine grapes and makes wine. Success has come to regions like Burgundy and Bordeaux after hundreds of years of struggle.
For some wine regions, the road leads to greatness. For others, it’s obscurity. Only the perfect grapes grown in the perfect conditions are successful in capturing the myth of place and time that we all seek to experience in the wines we drink.
Texas winemakers are still searching for those perfect conditions – for international varieties – that can produce premium quality wines in Texas’s particularly specific conditions.
But what about the native American grape varieties that have seemingly adapted to the terrain and the years of climatic abuse?
The Lenoir (aka Black Spanish) grape is a perfect example of a native Texas variety that produces interesting deep red fruity, acidic, tannic wines reminiscent of a Beaujolais-style Gamay Syrah blend. Lenoir is at once bold and alive on the palate and playful as the wine breathes, revealing a soft velveteen acidity within its focused fruit structure.
But there are very few producers who make Lenoir. Supermarket shelves are stocked with the latest Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays from around the world, but Lenoir is sold almost explicitly in the tasting rooms of wineries who make Lenoir.
One Hill Country winery, Dry Comal Creek, has been winning awards for their ‘Black Spanish’ Lenoir for several years.
It’s a wonder why more Texas wineries do not plant more Lenoir. Lenoir has adapted well to the terroir of Texas, primarily along the Rio Grande River. Lenoir is resistant to Pierce’s Disease and Phylloxera, it is resilient, and regularly produces clusters weighing more than a pound each.
With a history that dates to the migration of Christian monks from Mexico in the 1500 and 1600s, who likely planted the first vines for altar wine, Lenoir is a grape that has been disciplined by time and the harsh Texan climate. It is a survivor.
Granted, Lenoir is a native American variety and not of the austere Vitis vinifera species – almost 100% of all wines in the world are made from vinifera grapes. Lenoir is a cultivar of Vitis bourquiniana or Vitis aestivalis and has been planted throughout the southern United States. Wines made from the Lenoir grape have an identity all their own.
In time, the internationally-educated consumer will eventually begin to crave not only a variety they are familiar with which has been grown in a new and interesting wine region, but wines like Lenoir that speak to a sense of place beyond what is internationally mod at the time.
It is true, without the pioneers and visionaries in the Texan wine industry the Texas Hill Country would not be at the forefront of the new American winemaking odyssey. Llano Estacado, Becker, Fall Creek, Flat Creek Estate, Messina Hof, Torre De Pietra, Texas Hills, and others have successfully been making wine in Texas for years.
But winemaking is a process, one that’s taken human civilization centuries to understand and perfect. There have been failures and successes and some lasting lessons.
As with any journey, we pick up what will help us survive along the way. For Texas, right now, that means finding wines that can survive the elements, but more importantly making wines that showcase a terroir of such specific intensity that only a true Texan can survive.
Learn more about Texas Wine at www.gotexanwine.org
* Pierce’s Disease – Caused by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, is a deadly disease of grapevines. It is spread by certain types of xylem feeding leafhoppers (Cicadellidae) known as “sharpshooters.” Depending on the variety of grape, once effected, death of the entire vine usually occurs in 1 to 5 years.
* Texas Root Rot – (also known as cotton root rot) A pathogen fairly common in Mexico and the southwestern United States that causes sudden wilt and death of affected plants, usually during the warmer months. It is a soil-borne fungus of the species Phymatotrichopsis omnivora that attacks the roots of susceptible plants. Because the damaged roots are unable to take up enough water to maintain the plant in warm weather, the leaves wilt and the plant dies. The dead leaves usually remain attached to the plant.