As it did everywhere in the United States, Prohibition crippled the Texas wine industry, and just one winery, Val Verde, survived prohibition under a sacramental wine provision. Yet today, Texas has about 350 wineries in operation, and the wine industry has gone through some growing phases over the last two decades.
With 8 AVAs so far, Texas is beginning to address more subtle issues of terroir.
Mesilla Valley AVA by El Paso in the extreme western part of Texas seeps into New Mexico and roughly corresponds with some of the first viticultural regions in Texas that date back to the 1600s.
Drive east a bit, and you’ll hit the Texas Davis Mountains AVA, tucked into the southern Rockies. Here, the vineyards are at high elevations, and you’ll find some interesting wines, distinctive from the rest of the state.
Continue driving east and you’ll hit the Escondido Valley AVA. Here, the elevation changes as you go north to south, but the predominant feature across the region is the loam soil.
Making our way farther eastward yet, we hit the Texas Hill Country AVA — a very large AVA encompassing about 9 million acres. That’s about the size of Maryland and Connecticut combined, or about 8 Delawares. In all that land, there is quite a bit of variation in soil types, elevations, and microclimates. This huge AVA includes two other smaller AVAs: Fredericksburg AVA and Bell Mountain AVA.
Fredericksburg AVA is on the tiny size for Texas, 70.4K acres, which is about half a Delaware. Here, the soil is mostly clay loam, but there are elevation variations marked by low valleys and high peaks.
The Bell Mountain AVA, covers the southwestern slopes of… you guessed it, Bell Mountain. This is Texas’ smallest AVA (1/3 of a Delaware), and sits in the middle of Texas Hill County AVA.
Head north and a little bit to the border and you hit Texoma AVA along the Red River. Soils here are mostly sandy loam and clay.
Finally, we come to Texas High Plains AVA. This area is up in that northern block of Texas, on the west side. The post-prohibition era here began in the mid 1970s. They experienced a growth boom in the 1990s, and today the large AVA has become a major state producer, with about 80% of Texas grapes coming from this region. Texas High Plains has some deposits of terra rosa soil atop a limestone bed– almost exactly like the famous terra rosa soil in Coonawarra, Australia that is so famous for unique Cabernets.
Speaking of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet is definitely making a name for itself on the Texas High Plains terra rossa soils, and it is a pretty popular grape throughout Texas at large. Much of Texas’ early investment in the wine business focused on top international varieties like Cabernet and Chardonnay. But as the years go by, the grape story is shifting as producers are looking more and more toward grapes that thrive in similar, warmer climates throughout the world, specifically varieties from southern France, Spain, and Italy. Viognier, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese in particular have experienced recent success, and you’ll also find many examples of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Aglianico, and Vermentino.
Texas deals with the threat of late freezes. The extreme temperature swing of a late freeze can wipe out a crop virtually overnight, especially when the freeze happens after budbreak. This phenomenon particularly hurt the 2013 vintage in Texas High Plains. In the 1800s, farmers would wake up the whole family in the middle of the night during a late freeze, and each person would run down a row of crops, dropping a splash of water on each tiny plant that could get destroyed by the frost. Most of the plants hit with water would be saved as long as you wet them before the sun came up. Today, sprinklers can take care of this laborious task, but you’ll only have this luxury at a winery if you have water rights and infrastructure.
Pierce’s Disease can also ravage a vineyard. In part because of the prevalence of Pierce’s Disease, you see widespread work with hybrids in Texas, in particular Black Spanish, a hybrid with at least a century of experience under its belt, and the more recent Blanc du Bois, a white hybrid born in 1968.
Because of Texas’ steak culture, you’ll find some producers leaning toward bold reds that can pair with the meat-heavy cuisine. But you’ll also find several producers leaning toward crisp whites and rosés that cool you down in the Texas heat, or cut the spicy heat of some BBQ. Rosés seem to be taken pretty seriously in Texas, with many producers putting a heavy focus on rosé, and many local sommeliers showing support for rosé bottlings.
Despite a viticultural history that dates back almost 4 centuries, the bulk of the modern Texas wine industry is about 30 years old, and winemakers are still negotiating grape varieties against climate and soil types. It’s interesting to see how each individual AVA deals with their unique soils and climates, and while there are still many more chapters to be written in the book of Texas wine, it’s off to a rather intriguing start.
This warm-up appeared in Episode 297 of I’ll Drink to That.
About Erin Scala: Originally from Virginia’s wine country, Erin Scala’s earliest memories of wine include picking and crushing grapes as a child. Scala moved to Manhattan in 2008 and had fun working at PUBLIC, a one-Michelin star restaurant in Nolita, and their adjacent bar, The Daily. She was inspired by the restaurant’s Australian and New Zealand-focused wine list, and in 2013, was honored by Wine Enthusiast in their “40 Under 40” feature for the depth of her selections from the region. After a stint at The Musket Room, Erin moved to Charlottesville, Virginia to run the wine program at Fleurie Restaurant and Petit Pois Bistro. When she’s not working on a Warm Up for the podcast, Scala is off in search of a vineyard, drumming, or writing her blog www.Thinking-Drinking.com. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.