Most people think about wine in terms of grape variety. Learning about the grapes of a region is a good beginning for learning about the region's wines, but it's especially important in Texas because winemakers here are still figuring out what grapes grow best. In Burgundy winemakers have spent hundreds of years perfecting the wine identity of the region and the marriage of grape to vineyard site. In Texas these are open questions. So far, wineries and grape growers in Texas have tended to take one (or a combination) of the following approaches to their grape selection.
1. Plant hybrid or native, non-vinifera varieties.
Vitis vinifera is the species of the most important wine grapes in the world and is native to Europe and Asia. Grapes from indigenous American species, such as V. labrusca and V. aestivalis, are generally looked down upon in terms of quality and are unfamiliar to consumers. However, these native varieties (or crosses of a native variety with V. vinifera) perform well in Texas' challenging climate and have resistance to native grape diseases. Popular non-vinifera or partial-vinifera grapes in Texas include Blanc du Bois (cross between vinifera and a native Florida variety), Lenoir/Black Spanish (cross between vinifera and aestivalis), and Norton (V. aestivalis).
Blanc du Bois is a white grape that can be reminiscent of Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, or even Moscato depending on how it's grown and fermented. Texas produces Blanc du Bois in dry, sweet, sparkling, and fortified styles. Lenoir is a red grape with the unusual characteristic of having red colored flesh (the flesh and juice of most red grapes are actually pale or white). It tends to make richly flavored red wines with herbal qualities and plenty of tannin. Texas produces it in many styles -- rosé, dry, sweet, and fortified -- but might be most successful with Port- and Madeira-style dessert wines. Norton is a red grape that also makes richly flavored red wines and is produced in dry, sweet, and fortified styles.
Texas winemakers are experimenting with ways to make high quality, consumer-friendly wines from these non-standard grapes. Some are very good, and some have a ways to go. Here are some nice examples I've tasted:
Haak, Blanc du Bois, dry
Haak, Blanc du Bois, semi-sweet
Haak, Blanc du Bois, sweet
Messina Hof, Blanc du Bois Private Reserve, dry
Moravia Vineyards, Blanc du Bois, dry
Haak, Blanc du Bois, Port style
Haak, Blanc du Bois, Madeira style
Messina Hof, Sophia Marie, dry rosé
Georgetown Winery, Lenoir, dry
Tara, Stagecoach Red (50% Lenoir), dry
Enoch's Stomp, Ellen's Sweet Song, Port style
Haak, Reserve Tawny, Port style
Haak, Jacquez, Madeira style
Messina Hof, Port (various styles and prices)
Messina Hof, Tawny, Port style
Messina Hof, Ebony Ports of Call, Port style
Messina Hof, Solera, Sherry style
Stone House, Claros, dry red
Stone House, Scheming Beagle, Port style
(sorry for the blurry picture!)
2. Plant popular, international varieties.
These include V. vinifera grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay. and Sauvignon Blanc, which are household names and make up the vast majority of wine sold in the world. Planting these grapes makes sense for sales, because the wine will be immediately recognizable and familiar to consumers. The drawback is that several of these grapes don't grow well in the Texas climate, so the wines may not compete well with similar wines from other regions where those grapes grow better.
A notable exception is that Cabernet generally does well in Texas. And maybe this issue can be overcome for other grapes with the right growing and vinifying techniques. At a recent tasting of Texas wines in Houston, I drank a great Chardonnay, a grape which had been thought unworkable in Texas. Fall Creek's 2014 Vintner’s Selection Chardonnay (unoaked) from the Texas Hill Country costs $21, and I liked it better than the comparably priced Chardonnay from Chablis that we tasted as a comparison. (The Houston Chronicle has a write-up of that tasting here.)
3. Plant Spanish, Italian, or other Mediterranean varieties.
Much of Texas shares the warm, dry climate of Mediterranean regions, such as southern Spain, southern France, and Italy, so grapes that traditionally thrive in those regions do well in parts of Texas too. Parts of west Texas and the panhandle also share the cold winters of much of Spain. These climate comparisons have led many Texas winemakers to plant grapes from Spain, Italy, and southern France. These red grapes include Tempranillo, Grenache/Garnacha, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Sangiovese, Barbera, and Aglianico. The white grapes include Viognier, Vermentino, Trebbiano, and Roussanne.
McPherson Reserve Roussanne
Barking Rocks Roussanne
Becker Provencal Rosé of Mourvedre
Fall Creek Rosé of Grenache (It outperformed its French counterpart in the tasting I mentioned above.)
Spicewood Mourvedre Rosé (Also performed well against its French comparison.)
Llano Estacado Cellar Reserve Tempranillo
Flat Creek Sangiovese
I believe all of these cost less than $25.
4. Buy grapes from somewhere else (aka the Texas Grape Shortage).
The growth of Texas wineries has outpaced the growth of grape production. There are simply not enough Texas grapes to go around, so many Texas wineries buy grapes from other states, often from California. How can you tell if a wine is made from Texas grapes or grapes from somewhere else? The word "Texas" on the front label indicates that at least 75% of the grapes came from Texas. Wine regions within the state, such as "Texas High Plains," may be listed also.
But be careful -- "Texas style" and other variants on "Texas" do not necessarily indicate Texas grapes and can be misleading. Check the back label for the words "for sale in Texas only." This statement legally exempts a producer from putting the origin of the grapes on the bottle, and usually means the grapes were purchased from another state and vinified by a Texas winery. Why would a winery want to omit the origin of the grapes? Because it's marketing the wine as a Texas product. The law is complex, but in a nutshell, if the grapes came from California and the wine was made in Texas, the winery has two options: 1) label it "American" wine, or 2) leave off the statement of origin and sell it in Texas only, because it doesn't meet the labeling standards required for interstate commerce. This is a controversial topic, because many think "for sale in Texas only" intentionally misleads the consumer. I prefer the "American" designation, which you can see on Flat Creek Estate's Viognier below. (More details on the law here. Additional perspectives here, here, and here,) Luckily, more and more grapes are grown in Texas every year, so I hope to see fewer and fewer wineries buying grapes from other states and taking advantage of this loophole.
The next time you're in the wine shop, pick out something from Texas and see what you think. Like everything else Texan, there are many choices, many styles, and many opinions. Texas is making lots of great wine, and there's never been a better time to explore the variety.
You may also be interested in:
Tasting Tannat from Texas
Returning to Messina Hof for my 1st harvest and grape stomp!
Comparing 2 Texas Viogniers
Texas Kneecaps (with Bonus Lesson on Semi-Generic Labeling!)