Across the state of Texas, growers are harvesting grapes to make into wine that will become the 2014 vintage. It has been said that you can’t make good wine without good fruit, and the point at which the quality of the fruit is fixed is the moment of harvesting. That makes now an appropriate time to ask the people in the vineyards for an initial assessment of what the 2014 harvest will be like in terms of quality, quantity and character. I sent a survey to all known Texas grape growers and wineries asking them some key questions. Many responded, and I have attempted to assemble their thoughts below. If you grow grapes in Texas, or make Texas wine, and feel that you have something to add, please leave a comment below. Winemaking is, after all, a fluid situation (sorry).
Before reading the comments below, bear in mind some of the background facts about grape growing in Texas.
1. The area in which grapes can be grown is as large as western Europe, so expect the climate to vary considerably across the region.
2. Harvest commences in late July and continues through late September. It starts in the east of the state and down the gulf coast, where hot, humid conditions prevail. As the weeks pass, the harvest moves westward, through the Hill Country and to the High Plains (the area where around 70% of the state’s grapes are located) and the Davis Mountains.
3. The High Plains and the Davis Mountains are both characterized by low humidity desert, or near-desert, conditions. The High Plains also have the advantage over most of the rest of the state of altitude. The vineyards lie between 2,900 and 4,100 feet above sea level. The desert climate leads to very cold nights (60 degrees) and hot days (95+ degrees). This is crucial for grape ripening, as the nighttime cooling slows down the rate of sugar production in the vines, allowing the grapes time to become physiologically mature before the sugars reach harvest levels. The result is richer, more complex fruit flavors in the finished wine. Humid regions do not see such large reductions in temperature at night and so have a problem with sugar levels rising too quickly.
4. Grape varieties. The state’s premier red variety is Tempranillo. After that, there are a host of varieties vying for its crown: Aglianico, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Montepulciano, Mourvèdre, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Syrah, Tannat and Touriga Nacional all have their proponents and concrete examples of success.
Viognier is the state’s best white grape. Roussanne is in a close chase for best white but is not yet as widely planted. Muscat and Vermentino have more than one producer that makes a good product. The emerging white is Albarino. Other white grapes (e.g. Picpoul) can be good on a case-by-case basis.
The bottom line on successful grape varieties “appears” to be that Mediterranean varieties do best.
5. Texas is relatively new to grape growing. A big lesson that I learned in the last year was the realization that we may actually know less than we thought about what grows best in the state. For example, we had all agreed that Chardonnay does not do well, then this year Inwood Estates Vineyards makes not one but two impressive Chardonnays from two separate vineyards not only in Texas, but in that well-known Burgundy backwater of Dallas County! Likewise, Pinot Noir had been written off, and then Bar Z Winery in Canyon, Texas makes a Pinot Noir from High Plains fruit, suggesting that there may be hope yet. Dan Gatlin, winemaker at Inwood Estates, thinks that there is a lot of mileage in better clonal selection and militant enforcement of lower yields (the number of grape clusters allowed to grow on each wine).
Maybe the jury is still out on the choice of most suitable grape varieties.
6. A personal opinion of mine is that the scarcest factor in Texas wine making is human capital in the winery. I.e. expert, experienced winemakers. They do exist, but they are stretched thin. There are still startup wineries with big ambitions and few acquired skills (I have drunk your wines) trying to learn solely from books and therefore spending a decade either getting it right or going broke trying. I think the prospects for commercial winemaking in Texas right now are some of the best in the industry’s history (i.e. we are at an inflection point in quality, recognition of that quality, and quantity), but newcomers should hire an experienced winemaking consultant to short circuit the novice mistakes.
That said, here is the Q&A. Harvest is still in progress so, just like last year, I will ask these questions again in December (to the same people) for a post-fermentation view of the same vintage.
1. What quality rating do you give the 2014 harvest?
Respondents were enthusiastic about the quality of the grapes they are getting in 2014. “Stunning, Could be best quality ever” said Bobby Cox, winemaker at Pheasant Ridge Winery and a consultant in the High Plains. “Exceptional” said Gary Gilstrap of Texas Hills Vineyard in the Hill Country. His neighbor, Doug Lewis, of Lewis Wines, just tapped into his cell phone “Best year ever ;)”. Ron Yates, whose Spicewood Vineyards is also in the Hill Country, calculated “I would give it an 8 or 9 out of 10 for us”. Pierre de Wet, owner of Kiepersol Estates in Tyler gave it 8 out of 10. Sergio Cuadra, winemaker at Fall Creek Vineyards in Tow was caught mid-crush and urged caution “It’d be like judging a game at the first quarter!. So far so good though!”
Nobody reported that the grapes that they got were not good, but many reported that they got vastly reduced quantities due to frost. More on that below.
2. How does the quality of the harvest rate relative to other years?
Varied opinions here. Pat Brennan at Brennan Vineyards thought that 2012 was the better quality harvest. Bobby Cox and Gary Gilstrap thought this year was the best.
3. How does the size of the harvest compare with other vintages?
This was a story of the freeze on April 15th. Dan Gatlin, who uses both High Plains and Hill Country fruit, reported 50% of normal in the High Plains and 80% of normal in the Hill Country. Pat Brennan reported lower numbers at 30%-40% of normal. Pierre de Wet said “We are still staying around the three and a half tons per acre number with our 61 acres nearing completion”. Sergio Cuadra reported normal levels. Ron Yates said “We have had a significant tonnage per acre bump this year than in the past, while exceeding the flavor expectations”. Bobby Cox saw the opposite “Pretty tiny, with the late bidders showing well”.
4. Which grape types did best? Which did worst?
Pat Brennan reported “Whites were decimated. All varieties hurt by the 4/15/14 freeze but later breaking reds did best”. Gary Gilstrap said “Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, & Syrah all out performed and the quality & color are exceptional. No Worst, haven’t brought in the Sangiovese yet”. Ron Yates reported “ Tempranillo and Graciano did beautifully this year. Semillon was our only varietal this year we had any trouble with at all.” Bobby Cox broke it down as:
Best Whites: Roussanne, Trebbiano;
Best Reds: Mourvèdre !!!!! (sic), Cinsault, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Aglianico, Montepulciano;
Worst Whites: Viognier, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Muscat. Blanc, Malvasia Bianca;
Worst Reds; Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot.
The five exclamation marks after “Mourvèdre” are quoted from his original message. He is really excited about the quality of the wine that these grapes can make. It is also interesting that he got about 1000 cases worth of Cinsault (more than ever before) which will likely be used mainly to make rosè.
Pierre de Wet went into detail “Our Viognier phenomenal! Our block three Cabernet Sauvignon is a rockstar in the fermenter right now with gorgeous color and beautiful tannin. Our block 14 Malbec and Syrah have great flavors, beautiful acidity, nice color and tannins. These stand out so much more than the rest right now because of the complexity of flavor bursting so early! The worst would certainly be Sauvignon Blanc this year. We are not happy with the fruit”.
5. What was your biggest problem during the year?
Here there was an overwhelming winner, in terms of number of mentions, frost. Dan Gatlin cited it and Pat Brennan even said that it was worse than 2013 (when frost in the High Plains was devastating).
Leber Beall of Rush Creek Vineyards reported a widespread story “I harvested my tempranillo in Erath county last Saturday…quality was very good–probably about average for me. Unfortunately the crop was 25% of last year because of the April 15 freeze. That freeze wiped out my rkatsiteli, palomino and viognier and decreased by 75% my roussanne and mourvedre”.
Jack Wright, proprietor of Blue Mountain Trail Vineyard in the Davis Mountains had an even worse report, but with a grain of hope at the end “Harvest almost nonexistent due to three hours of 26 degrees F on April 15. Downtown Fort Davis, TX got down to 19 degrees. Seventy percent of the vine trunks were so badly damaged that they had to be cut at ground level. The Tempranillo was the most fruitful on the secondary buds by far. The Viognier vines seem to be the weakest in dealing with the late spring freeze.
The Cinsault 31 vines planted in my experimental row seems to be completely impervious to the late spring freeze. This is very interesting to me. There may be a future for Cinsault in Texas. The Malbec growing in the experimental row seems very vigorous. The Syrah clone 007 is almost catatonic along with the Primitivo and Counoise and Marsanne. The Roussanne seems to be doing well along with the Grenache, Mourvedre, Cabernet clone 4 and Petit verdot.”
Bobby Cox sees late pruning as another frost defense. He was impressed with Oswald Vineyard’s results using it with the aid of their new Pellenc Pre-Pruning machine.
One winery that saw problems other than frost was Kiepersol in Tyler, East Texas. “Unusual rainfall the last two weeks of July, thank goodness for the dry heat to follow. Helped shrink and ripen all those berries right up!” wrote Pierre de Wet.
6. What most excites you about the vintage?
This elicited varied responses dependent on circumstances.
Pierre de Wet: “2014 vintage is looking extremely bright in terms of acidity color and fruit we’re going to certainly capture all these fruit forward notes that were getting from this vintage!”
Dan Gatlin: “High quality low quantity continues Texas’ role as the craft wine capital of the US”
Pat Brennan: “Hope to get small amounts of good Viognier and reds”.
Sergio Cuadra, who was hired by Fall Creek in 2013 from Chile where he worked for some leading wineries such as Concho y Toro and Errazuriz reported: “Well, in my case it’s my first whole cycle in Texas, from the pruning to harvest, which is always an interesting challenge and every angle of it is exciting.”
Gary Gilstrap: “COLOR and Flavor”
Ron Yates: “I am most excited about the quality/quantity combo. Both aspects seemed to be in unison this year. Our flavors are more intense this year than in years past and we are actually going to have a full barrel room/tank room for a change”.
Overall, 2014 was an eventful vintage. Expect some very good wines, more grape varieties than ever before, more wine types than before (due to the growth of rosé and sparkling wines), but also small quantities for certain varieties, especially Viognier.