Wines of Sand and Sun
There are preconceived notions of West Texas. Much like a scene from the movie Nocturnal Animals by Tom Ford where the sun is thriving, heating the surroundings with its golden burning waves. The soil is dry and thirsty, and cracking. Mirage effects on the hot asphalt roads stretch for miles. No life, no water, only tumbleweeds and cactus. But this isn’t the case. The Texas High Plains in the Texas panhandle is a thriving agricultural oasis with unending acres of vineyards.
Grapegrowing and winemaking in Texas aren’t new. The first vineyard planted in Texas by the Spanish missionaries was near El Paso in the 1600s, and the first winery, Val Verde, was established in 1883 in Del Rio. However, Prohibition in 1919 led to the shutdown of 24 of the 25 existing wineries. In late 1933, Prohibition was repealed, and the Texas wine industry began its comeback.
Texas is a large state. Texas has 8 AVAs (American Viticulture Areas), each having its unique traits and characteristics. From North to South and from East to West, the climate is different—ranging from dry to wet with hurricanes and heatwaves happening simultaneously and only a few miles apart. There are also 1,300 different soil types across the state. The Texas High Plains AVA is the second largest AVA in the state, designated in 1993.
When we talk terroir, four factors contribute to the essence of this term: the climate, the soil, the plant, and the human element. The interaction between these four factors influences the quality of the grape and the typicity of the wine.
In Texas High Plains, the summers are hot and dry, and the winters are cold and dry, with an average of 20 inches of rain per year. Temperatures can reach up to 100 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit in July and August. The abundance of heat and sun allows the grapes to ripen and the sugar to accumulate without any effort.
The cold winter can be a blessing and a nightmare at the same time. As the cold temperatures sign for grapevines to go dormant and rest after the long season, sometimes temperatures falling too drastically can cause extreme damage to some varieties. In 2019, temperatures dropped on Halloween night from the upper forties to below freezing injuring many acres, an event we called in the Texas wine industry the Halloween massacre.
The dry climate keeps the fungal disease pressure at its lowest, reducing the vineyard’s chemical input. All vineyards in this area are drip irrigated allowing better control of vine vigor and growth. The wind blows across the land almost every day, sometimes with significant force, causing several wind storms or haboobs as the locals call them where the blue sky turns into orange from the carried sand. However, the wind has a drying effect on the canopy after the rare rainfall events, reducing moisture inside the canopy and, consequently, fungal disease infections.
As the name implies, the Texas High Plains AVA is located on high elevation between 3,000 and 4,000 feet. It is part of the great central plains of the U.S., stretching southward from the Dakotas through Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. The high elevation enables a great diurnal variation in temperatures between the hot days and cool nights during the ripening period. This difference allows the fruit to maintain acidity and attain an optimal phenolic and aromatic ripening essential to produce premium quality wines.
Vineyard soils are mainly sandy to sandy-loam with a caliche layer underneath. The fine loamy sand soils are ideal for growing grapes. These loosely structured and relatively low vigor soils allow for good root development to sustain vines in the arid environment. This well-drained soil type with a moderate water holding capacity again allows better vine development.
Because Texas is such a young winemaking region, many varieties are grown, from the more popular Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to the less popular Sangiovese and Carignan. Variety selection has been a quiet but interesting journey of successes and failures from the industry’s beginning to our present time. Even though you can still find the classic varieties such as Pinot noir and Chardonnay, they are being planted less in Texas for two main reasons: challenges imposed by the climate such as the spring frost and winter damage and the emergence of other varieties with higher quality potential. Varieties from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Côtes du Rhône are gaining popularity compared to the classic Bordeaux and Burgundian grape varieties. Mourvèdre, Carignan, Sangiovese, and Montepulciano for reds are some examples along with Roussanne, Marsanne, Piquepoul blanc, and Albariño for whites. Petit Verdot, Aglianico, and Petite Sirah also tend to be good choices, as they hold their acidity during the summer heat.
The fourth component of terroir is the human factor or the people behind the wine. The wine industry in Texas made a strong comeback in 2005 and is still booming now. The number of vineyard acres in Texas doubled in the last decade with more than 6,000 acres, with the Texas High Plains producing 80 to 85 percent of the state’s grapes. Vineyards are mechanized and equipped with the most sophisticated farming technologies. Growing grapes in an arid area and dealing with the countless challenges isn’t for everybody. It requires people with perseverance, dedication, and strong minds. Texas winemakers are carving out their stories by producing fine wines that reflect their visions and perspectives.
They say you need the perfect combination to create a masterpiece. Well, this ultimate combination exists gracefully in the Texas High Plains where all the elements meld elegantly to shape wines like no other. Wines from Texas’ vast plains, from the land of open skies, and bright stars. Wines of exception. Wines of sand and sun.