High Plains Devastated – Central Texas Sees Good Harvest
The 2013 Texas grape harvest is a story of contrasts . The High Plains, the most important wine grape area, was hit by no fewer than five frosts in the spring, leading to a 90% decrease in grape output compared with last year. The frosts were, as consultant Bobby Cox wrote “timed to do maximum damage”. The Hill Country, Gulf Coast, and north east of the state saw much better, sometimes very good, conditions.
I posed six questions about the harvest thus far to every winery in Texas. Below I reproduce a selection of the responses that represent the overall picture. It is early days yet, as virtually every respondent remarked, so this report is preliminary. I will have another report around the end of the year.
1. What quality rating do you give the 2013 vintage?
Kert Platner, founding partner of Times Ten Cellars which is based in Dallas but has a vineyard in Alpine (Cathedral Mountain Vineyard) in the Davis Mountains AVA summarised a refrain similar to that from High Plains growers “We were really looking forward to a beautiful crop for 2013, most likely over 18 tons of fruit. We now expect less than 2 tons, which may not be worth picking.”
Winemaker Dave Reilly at Duchman Family Winery relies on High Plains growers. He said “I am not sure we will receive any fruit for 2013. Maybe 10% of the 2012 vintage”.
Moving out of the High Plains, things looked less negative.
Raymond Haak, owner and wine director at Haak Vineyards and Winery speaks from experience of the Gulf Coast region (the southern third of Texas all the way east to Longview). He wrote “ Blanc du Bois is currently in various stages of harvest. Most, if not all, have been harvested in the Valley (Brownsville/Harlingen area). The mid- of south Texas in Austin and surrounding counties will be harvested in the week to 10 days. Due to the extreme drought all of Texas is experiencing, there has been little to no disease pressure. The fruit is excellent. Also due to a very chilly spring along the coast, 2013 harvest dates have been extended or delayed at least 2 to 3 weeks from this time last year”.
Seth Martin, owner/winemaker at Perissos Vineyard and Winery in the Hill Country expected “High quality but low quantity”.
Also in the Hill Country, Tim Drake, winemaker at Flat Creek Estate gave a breakdown between red and white grapes
“-The reds look to be phenomenal this year. Temperatures have been significantly lower, both in the highs and the lows. This has allowed the reds to really develop nice phenolic character and color without having the acids drop out from beneath us. This slower rate of ripening should give us really nice wines with deep complexity and well developed flavors.
-The whites are also benefitting from this, but they were much more affected by the several freeze events this Spring. As a result, yields are significantly less to non-existent and the grapes are 2-3 weeks behind their normal developmental patterns. I think this will result in elegant wines driven by minerality and crisp acidity.”
At Pedernales Cellars in the Hill Country they use both High Plains fruit and fruit that they buy from the High Plains and saw the split effect of the weather in each place: Owner David Kuhlken wrote “We are a few weeks away from harvesting most blocks this year, so it is a little early to make a complete judgment. I can say that the generally milder weather has allowed us to manage yields and development to our goals and that bodes well for the vintage. The loss of our High Plains fruit however certainly takes away from the year since we miss out on some great parts of our line up.
2. How does the quality of the vintage rate relative to other years?
Seth Martin: “Well, its not harvested yet but it looks the fruit quality will be more promising than last year —which was great—as each vine is carrying much less fruit so the flavors should be more intense.”
Raymond Haak: “2013 is much better. Last year on the Coast of Texas, we had a wet year with a great deal of disease pressure” and “Vintage quality scale = 0 to 10. 2013 vintage quality = 9.5 to 10.0!”
Todd Webster, winemaker at Brennan Vineyards in Comanche uses fruit grown n the estate and said “Just based on what the clusters look like I think we will have above average quality this year”.
3. How does the size of the vintage compare with other vintages?
Seth Martin: “I’d say 40% as large as last season with the exception of the Viognier which is around 90% reduced due to late freezes.”
Raymond Haak: “As of July 13th, the actual harvest tons compared to the projected harvest tons were about 25% lower than last year. This reduction, in part, is due to the extreme heat in each vineyard and weight losses due to aspiration/evaporation of the liquid in the grapes.”
Todd Webster: “2012 was such a huge harvest you knew it would only go down in 2013. But we are at about 45% of 2012 yields this year.”
Bobby Cox, consultant, referring to the High Plains said, “Very smallest ever!”
“-Crop levels are significantly down in the High Plains. The series of spring freezes this year reduced many varieties to zero. The High Plains vineyards that were fortunate enough to be least affected still have much lower tonnage than normal.
-At our Estate vineyard, our whites are roughly 50-60% of normal. The reds put on less fruit than normal, but we didn’t need to do any fruit thinning to get them to the levels we look for, so in practice, our reds are average to slightly below average this year.”
David Kuhlken: “This will be our smallest vintage in years”.
Paul Bonarrigo, owner at Messina Hof Winery told me when I was at the winery two weks ago that the crop size in the Bryan area was a record size. However, their purchased fruit in the High Plains was as badly hit as everyone else’s.
4. Which grape types did best? Which did worst?
Seth Martin: “Worst, Viognier. Best, Aglianico”.
Todd Webster: “Just speaking from our estate vineyards which is roughly 70% of our production. The worst are Viognier, Semillon & Nero d’Avola. Spring freeze wiped out entire 2013 harvest. The best look like Tempranillo & Cabernet Sauvignon”
Bobby Cox: “Mourvedre did best. Viognier worst”
“-The best varieties for us were Montepulciano and our Syrah.
-The variety hardest hit across Texas is probably Viognier. It has bud break so early that it was the hardest hit by the spring freezes.”
David Kuhlken: “Tempranillo has been looking great and is going to be the foundation of the vintage. High PlainsViognier is simply going to be missing from the 2013 vintage which is a great disappointment given the excellent Viognier coming out of 2012”
5. What most excites you about the vintage?
Seth Martin: “The vines are more well balanced and the fruit, albeit smaller in quantity, should produce more intensely flavored wines.”
Raymond Haak: “The overall quality of Blanc du Bois is outstanding and this should be a year to remember for those vineyards that managed to dodge the freezes and hail.”
Todd Webster: “The clusters remind me of 2011. Smaller clusters with small berries. Yield may be down in 2013, but quality should be great. Across the board our 2011 wines have been great. So I hope to see if the 2013 harvest can duplicate the successes of 2011.”
Tim Drake: “Our estate reds! Everything has come together perfectly to give us perfectly balanced canopies, optimum crop loads, and excellent looking fruit. The series of rains this year have come at opportune times and amounts. This allowed us to hold back on irrigating and we only gave the vines the bare minimum they needed to produce great fruit. The past several years, we’ve had to apply much more water just to keep the vines alive from the drought and heat, which forced us to be more intensive with our canopy management”.
David Kuhlken: “ We will be harvesting from several new vineyards in the Hill Country this year and I hope those blocks can add some new character into some of our blends”
The last word has to go to Bobby Cox: ”Next year!”
Despite the trials and tribulations, I found an air of resignation in several respondents comments. It was aptly summarized by Kert Platner who said “Classic farming”. Les Constable, owner of Brushy Creek Vineyards described problems that are a more prosaic part of the grape growers lot in Texas “hogs, deer, coons & birds take their share. Sometimes more than their share. The deer are more hungry than usual so I need to go put up more fence”.