How Low Yields Are Spurring Texas Winemakers’ Creativity

How Low Yields Are Spurring Texas Winemakers’ Creativity

“At the beginning of the year, we were extremely optimistic,” says Akhil Reddy, CEO of Reddy Vineyards in the 2022 Texas High Plains American Viticultural Area (AVA). “But it’s been another roller coaster.”

Eighty-five percent of Texas wine grapes are grown in the state’s High Plains AVA. However, the 2022 crop presented numerous challenges, including relentless heat, drought, strong winds and other cumulative environmental factors, to name a few. For many growers, yields are down—and for some as much as 60%.

Images courtesy of Reddy Vineyards

Reddy explains that when yields are low, costs are not covered, which means it’s hard to make a profit. For smaller vineyards, the economic consequences can be significant. “Even with insurance, it’s more to get you to resist,” says Reddy.

But winemakers are choosing to focus on the grapes they managed to harvest. And Randy Hester, owner and winemaker of CL Butaud Wines in Austin, predicts that the bottles coming from the 2022 harvest will be “pleasantly hedonistic.”

Here’s a look at some of the many factors that influenced Texas grapes and how winemakers are getting creative with what they have.

Relentless heat and drought

Between June and July, average temperatures in Lubbock on the Texas High Plains exceeded 100°F on more than thirty days, the National Weather Service reports, breaking a record dating back to 1940 for July. The National Weather Service describes Texas as “at the epicenter of heat for July 2022,” while other regions in the South and West also saw “some of their warmest/hottest Julys.”

The initial June heat wave rattled the vines, explains Nikhila Narra Davis, co-owner of Narra Vineyards on the High Plains and Kalasi Cellars in Fredericksburg. As the high temperatures continued, the vines focused their energy on supporting the existing crop load, rather than encouraging new growth.

Additionally, most locations outside the Caprock escarpment, which separates the High Plateau from lower elevation areas to the east, received less than two inches of rain. This extended a drought that began in October 2021, says Dr. Ed Hellman, professor of Viticulture and Enology at Texas Tech University in Fredericksburg. Reddy explains that dehydration had a particular impact on subsequent bud break volume for grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Montepulciano, which are typically harvested in late September.

Vines also require moisture during winter dormancy. If the volume of the root is depleted during the winter due to lack of water, explains Dr. Hellman, vines can dry out and this can delay bud break in the spring, which can lead to unpredictable ripening times later.

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“We already focus on keeping yields low,” says Narra Davis, adding that with a few exceptions, she and co-owner Greg Davis usually try to get to three tons per acre, dropping fruit before veraison to lower yields and improve concentration of taste. . “But the drought got to where it was rare for an acre to produce more than a ton.”

Dicamba Drift

Another critical factor affecting High Plains grapes is dicamba, a herbicide spray used by cotton producers.

Cotton is Texas’ largest crop, and the largest production area is on the High Plains. As reported in Texas Monthly, a 2016 iteration of dicamba promised to reduce the chemical’s ability to disperse, or evaporate, into the air. However, dicamba drift is still causing stunted canopies, weakened vines and death of younger vines, says Narra Davis.

According to Chris Brundrett, co-founder of William Chris Wine Co. in the Texas Hill Country AVA, dicamba weakens the vascular system of grapevines.

Harvest problems beyond the high plains

Yields in other parts of the state correlate with declining numbers in the High Plains. In North Texas, winemaker Chris McIntosh grows Albariño, Grenache and Tempranillo on the property at Edge of the Lake Vineyard and Winery. In 2022, low moisture and extreme heat led to variable ripening times, and McIntosh harvested six different times, twice for each variety, depending on the age of the block.

“This has never happened before. We’ve always been able to bake everything evenly,” says McIntosh.

The Fort Davis AVA in far west Texas is roughly a mile high, more than 1,000 feet higher than the Texas Plains. Adam White, a grape grower and winemaker at Château Wright in Fort Davis, echoes Dr. Hellman for winter irrigation, noting that yields are down by up to 50% in 2022.

Extraordinary grapes born of difficult circumstances Image courtesy of Manda Levy

Despite the reduced yields, the winemakers are ready for creative expansion as the grapes they were able to harvest are exceptional.

“The quality has been phenomenal because of the small berry size, higher concentration and surprisingly ripe seeds,” says Roxanne Myers, president of Lost Oak Winery and past president of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. .

“We have full phenolic ripening at low Brix unmatched in my nine harvests in Texas. It’s exactly what we’re looking for from a winemaking standpoint,” says Hester.

Randy Hester of CL Butaud Wines predicts that the bottles coming from the 2022 vintage will be “pleasantly hedonistic.” / Image courtesy of CL Butaud Wines

“The harvest was small, but ‘great quality’ seems like a cliché,” says Maura Sharp, co-owner of Sharp Family Vineyards in Fort Davis. “But what we got was tannic, bright with sugar and held acidity beautifully, for because of our altitude… The skins are thick, the berries are deep and rich in color.”

Ron Yates, co-owner and president of Ron Yates Wines and Spicewood Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country AVA, echoes that sentiment, calling it “a tale of two harvests,” as “many picks will later produce some of the wines the best we’ve ever done.”

Dan Gatlin, owner of Inwood Estates Vineyards in Fredericksburg, describes the 2022 Tempranillo as “wild,” coming in at 0.25 tons per acre.

“What he has for 2022 will be of a very high quality, with really high concentrations of flavor. The flip side is that we would like to have more of it,” Gatlin says.

New challenges mean new rewards

Unlike previous years, sparkling wines and European-style field blends will be more prominent than usual in the 2022 vintages, according to Jason Centanni, winemaker at Llano Estacado Winery on the Texas Plains. And Centanni is not alone.

For the first time ever, Hester is also making sparkling Grenache with grapes from Desert Willow Vineyard, where he typically sources Grenache and Mourvèdre for single-vineyard bottling.

Both Hester and Yates note that keeping the grapes on the vine as long as possible to promote ripeness did not compromise acidity levels. Following a similar lead to Hester, Lood Kotze, winemaker for Reddy Vineyards, closely monitored ripening and harvest dates to ensure desirable acidity for the winery’s first sparkling wines using Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. , both picked in the first days of harvest. Kotze notes that both are traditional champagne varieties and thus work well for this style.

William Chris is working on a sparkling Blanc Du Bois and his upcoming Uplift series will rely on Italian varietals such as Aglianico, Sangiovese and Montepulciano – varieties that proved stable in 2022.

Wineries are also taking new approaches to key bottling.

At Edge of the Lake, McIntosh harvested Grenache from three different sections of his vineyard, as extreme heat caused ripening to occur at different times. So, in addition to a flagship Grenache estate, it will produce a brand new wine called Youngblood, from younger vines. The new Grenache will also offer McIntosh’s rosé more color and structure.

For Yates, the blend tests will include Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

While the past year has been particularly difficult, Texas winemakers are used to facing challenges.

“People in the industry want to raise the bar to make the best wines they can,” says Dr. Hellman. “And they spur each other on.”

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