Grape growing in Texas means shorter, hotter growing seasons than in California, Michigan or Oregon. Yet even with a sometimes-sweltering climate, the Lone Star State ranks #5 in the nation when it comes to wine production. Let’s explore how viticulturists and winemakers come together to create the best Texas wines. Sure’nuff, if you’re hankering to learn more about Texas red wines, whites and others, this is the place.
“Modern wine production got kicked off in the 1970s but really began in earnest in the 1990s,” explains Denise Clarke, director of the Texas Fine Wine group. That makes Texas relatively young at wine production compared to California or New York.
Consequently, Lone Star State viticulturists continue to experiment with different varietals to learn which thrive in its fluctuating semi-arid climate. In this article, we’ll explore some of those varietals that make the best Texas wines. Many are outside the familiar international grape varieties of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc.
That’s not to say that grape growing in Texas is not satisfactory for producing the well-known varieties. But as Dave Reilly, winemaker at Duchman Family Winery, discloses, “There are other varieties more well-suited to the state.” He creates Duchman’s four flagstaff wines from Vermentino, Trebbiano, Montepulciano and Aglianico, which stand up to the challenges of grape growing in Texas but are not widely recognized.
The problem is that consumers—including you and me—can’t pronounce many of those wine varietals made with grapes growing in Texas. But more on that later.
Misperceptions about Texas viticulture
“One of the misperceptions about Texas, that it seems like it would have a very limited climate for growing grapes,” says Julie Kuhlken of Pedernales Cellars, an expert on grape growing in Texas. “But there are really two things that are going on: One, Texas is actually bigger than France, so there is an enormous amount of geographic diversity.
[Second,] if you look at the High Plains, you have amazing diurnal.” Diurnal shift refers to daily temperature swings that heat the grape during the daytime and then cool it off at night. A sizeable diurnal change causes the grape to maintain higher acidity. Those who think the state’s hot climate would limit Texas red wine and white wine production are probably unaware of the broad diurnal shifts.
Let’s take a look at a map of the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) or federally-recognized regions for grape growing in Texas:
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Where to find vineyards and wine tasting in Texas?
Find opportunities for wine tasting in Texas in or near the state’s eight AVAs. Depending on where you are visiting, you can find an AVA near you. Of course, there are always opportunities for wine tasting in Texas outside the AVAs.
The Texas Hill Country AVA has more visitor services than other AVAs, so that’s the place to go if you’re choosing your Texas destination in terms of wine experiences. You’ll find places to taste Texas red wine, rosé and white wine.
As you can see from the map above, Texas Hill Country is the largest AVA in Texas. What you might not be able to discern is that it is the third-largest AVA in the nation.
Texas High Plains AVA is where the majority of Texas grapes are grown and where “You can see forever,” says Denise. If you think she’s exaggerating, check out the photo below:
Texas High Plains AVA
The landscape is desolate, but rich sand and clay over caliche make up the Texas High Plains soil. With a high elevation of 3-5,000 feet / 914-1524 meters above sea level, you’ve got that nice diurnal shift that lets the grapes rest at night. Challenges include hail in the summertime, late spring freezes and spring winds. Growers have found that hail netting and wind fans help protect the grapes to make the best Texas wines.
Texas Hill Country AVA
The Texas Hill Country has a different terroir. “It’s really night and day [difference] in the two AVAs,” explains Denise. The wide range of soil types includes limestone, granite, clay, gravel alluvial soil and sandstone. There are many different terroirs within the Texas Hill Country with elevations from 400-2400 feet / 122-731 meters.
Texas Davis Mountains AVA
Davis Mountains AVA takes advantage of higher altitude and lower rainfall than other parts of the state. “Davis Mountains is at, I believe, 5200 feet / 1585 meters, the same elevation as Denver. It’s the only volcanic soil in the state,” says Ron Yates, owner and president of Spicewood Vineyards. The sixth-generation rancher is planting more Tempranillo in the Davis Mountain AVA after years of growing and experimenting in five other places around the state. Once those grapes take root, he will find out if Davis Mountains produces the best Texas wines.
Grape growing in Texas between the AVAs
Not all Texas vineyards or Texas wine tasting rooms are found inside an official AVA, of course. Brennan Vineyards is one such wine producer. “We are between the two AVAs [High Plains and High Country.] I like to say that we get the best of both worlds when it comes to that,” says Rebecca Conley. Rebecca is the head of operations and marketing for Brennan Vineyards. There you can experience Texas wine tasting in an 1870s Texas rangers homestead in the frontier town of Comanche, Texas. Taste Texas red wine or whites, including Ella’s Pine, a 100% Sémillon.
Now back to those difficult-to-pronounce wine varieties that thrive in the Texas terroir:
Varieties that do well in Texas aren’t household names – yet!
“The challenge is that many of the varieties that do well here [in Texas] aren’t household names,” divulges Julie, co-founder of Pedernales Cellars. The extremely long list of varietals that grow in Texas includes Tempranillo, Mourvèdre, Tannat and Viognier.
Try saying THAT five times fast! Then add the four varietals named by winemaker Dave earlier. Yikes!
Wine tasting in Texas via ZOOM
BTW, I spoke with these people who work hard to put grapes in a glass on a ZOOM call. It included a virtual wine tasting. When the other food, wine and travel writers in attendance shared their Texas wine tasting notes, many avoided saying the grapes’ names, while others mispronounced them. I mention this, so you don’t feel bad when you stumble over the Spanish, French and Italian names. Hey, when I was a wine newbie, I had a hard time with the familiar varietals. Case in point, I just overheard a guy order a “Cabaret” at a cocktail lounge in the Minneapolis airport.
Can’t pronounce varieties of grapes growing in Texas? Have no fear!
So then, my advice is to keep practicing the pronunciation of these Texas wines that are not yet household names until they roll off your tongue:
Tempranillo pronounced tem-pra-ni-yo in Spain – the double L sounds like a Y, as in tortilla,
Mourvèdre pronounced moor-veh-drrr – with the final R softly rolled as the French do,
Tannat pronounced tan-at in France, and
Viognier pronounced vee-oh-nyay by my French-speaking friends.
So then, what about this enormous list of wine grapes growing in Texas? In the most recent USDA study, Texas growers reported 58 different grape varieties planted for wine. Here are the top ten in each category of grapes for Texas red wine and white wine.
Texas Red Wine: Top 10 Red Grapes
According to a 2019 United States Department of Agriculture report, the most planted red grapes in Texas (listed in order) are:
- Cabernet Sauvignon,
- Black Spanish,
- Cabernet Franc and
These are the grapes that make Texas red wine that you will be sampling during wine tasting in Texas.
Top 10 White Grapes in Texas
The top ten white grapes growing in Texas are:
- Blanc du Bois,
- Pinot Grigio,
- Sauvignon Blanc,
- Chenin Blanc and
Look for these when you’re visiting for Texas wine tastings. In the future, I won’t be surprised to see Viognier on the list as it’s trending as a popular grape growing in Texas now.
“Stylistically, I prefer Viognier that is not oaked,” describes Dave from Duchman Family Winery. “This is Texas—Texas is hot, so we go for nice and refreshing—the acid’s got to be there, no malolactic fermentation–not the creamy, buttery style.”
While Dave speaks, I sip his 2019 Viognier. Our hosts were gracious to send each food, wine and travel writer on the ZOOM call a bottle so we could actually experience Texas wine tasting during this virtual tour. The 100% Texas fruit wine is an expression of a crisp Viognier, and I’m enjoying the viognier viscosity that delivers a touch of texture.
The winemaker says:“This Viognier is on the map for wineries across the state,” touts Dave. “It is high alcohol because Viognier has to get ripe, in my opinion. It’s the style for me—get it ripe to get it to express itself. You do get a bit of that viognier viscosity but not from oak treatment.” This is my first Texas wine, and I’m quite impressed. “2019 is my absolute favorite Viognier that we’ve made to date,” sums Dave. Order it here.
Texas red wine, whites and roses pair well with BBQ
“Tempranillo pairs very well with what we eat in Texas, including fajitas and BBQ,” says Julie, who notes that fajitas are classic Tex-Mex food— fajitas were never Mexican food. Likewise, wine tasting in Texas is often paired with Tex-Mex or BBQ.
The Spanish word “Temprano” denotes early, so Tempranillo references that traditionally, growers harvested the grape earlier than other grapes. As a result, it thrives in the Texas terroir, where growing seasons are short.
Duchman is right down the road from Salt Lick BBQ, one of Texas’s most famous BBQ joints. Duchman Family Winery creates Texas red wine and white wine for the popular restaurant.
And while you are in the area, don’t miss taking a sip of Texas Sotol at Desert Door Distillery. The obscure spirit category is a kissing cousin to tequila or mescal. But what exactly is sotol? Find out in my story about sotol yucca or cactus?
Only in Texas: Win a saddle for top wine
“The grape that we are most known for and that some of you are drinking tonight is Tannat,” says Jennifer McInnis, general manager of Bending Branch Winery and past president of the Texas Hill Country Wineries association. “It has the most tannin of all the red grapes.”
Tannat is a grape from southwest France, but when it’s is grown in the Texas Hill Country AVA, the French varietal is toned. “It gives more a floral, perfume-y, very delicate approachable characteristic for a grape that is really known to be aggressive,” describes Jen.
Best Texas Wines to Drink Now
Texas Fine Wine group represents quality, benchmark wines of 100% Texas grapes. The group’s member vintners produce award-winning Texas wines. The best Texas red wines to drink now include:
- Spicewood Vineyards 2016 The Good Guy –Texas Hill Country, Estate
- Pedernales Cellars 2017 Texas GSM Melange
- Brennan Vineyards 2017 Super Nero
- Duchman Family Winery 2016 Aglianico
- Bending Branch Winery 2017 Tannat CM, Tallent Vineyards – Gold at 2021 San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo International Wine Competition
Texas Fine Wine member wineries produce these excellent whites that you should be drinking now:
- Pedernales Cellars 2018 Viognier Reserve
- Spicewood Vineyards 2018 Viognier
- Duchman Family Winery 2018 Duchman Family Viognier
- Brennan Vineyards 2019 Ella’s Pine 100% Sémillon
- Bending Branch Comfortage
As is common in the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was provided with one bottle of wine for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.
In addition, this blog, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel, contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, Stacey earns a commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of keeping this travel blog active.
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