Now most of you may not be aware of this, but one of the most watched programmes of the year is on Sunday the 6th of February- the American Football Superbowl. This year the game is held in Houston, Texas (unlike the majority of our major sports, the venue changes every single year, totally independent of who is in it- there is no home ground advantage). I thought it would be pertinent therefore to write my Friday piece on the relatively unknown American wine regions of Texas!
Texas, the ‘Lone Star State’ is the biggest in mainland America, and is the 5th largest producer of wine in the whole country. Now you may not have ever had a wine from this state- or even known they make wine, but Texas played a major part not only in the establishment of the American wine industry (the fist vineyards were planted by the Spanish here at the Ysleta Mission in the 1660’s!), but was responsible in part for the continuation of winemaking throughout the world! More on that later though…
Despite a long history of winemaking in this state due to the strong Spanish history of the whole region, the Texas wine industry was hit hard by the institution of the Volstead Act- more widely known as ‘Prohibition’. A lot of the supporters of Prohibition came from the Deep South, and as a result, once it was written into the Constitution on January 17, 1920, every single winery in Texas was immediately shut down. Despite the repeal of this Constitutional amendment in 1933, the first commercial winery to re-open did not appear until 1976- what a hangover! Growth since then however has been rapid; in 2014 there were 275 official wineries across the state.
Being so large, Texas has a wide range of different environments such as deserts, mountains, lakes, rivers and plains, and several of these mesoclimates within this state are suitable for viticulture. Not all though- the south of the state near the border with Mexico is too dry, and to the east bordering the state of Louisiana the environment is too humid and wet, meaning almost all wineries in Texas are found in the north and east of the state where it is cooler and more fertile. The state is roughly divided into 3 main zones; the North-Central Zone runs from Austin up to the very north of the state, and has by far the biggest concentration of wineries making the best wines. The region of Texas High Plains AVA (American Viticultural Area) is found in this zone, located right up in the ‘pan-handle’ of the state, and is widely considered to be the best viticultural region in the country. The other two zones, South-Eastern and Trans-Pecos are much smaller and produce cheaper, mass-market wines due to the abundant sunshine and wide, open ‘Meseta’ plains that are easy to machine irrigate and harvest. The key grape varieties grown in Texas are the Napa classics Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, however today there is a move towards Rhone valley varietals better suited to the heat such as Viognier, Syrah and Grenache, as well as warm-climate-suited Mediterranean varieties Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Vermentino.
Now a lot of what I have discussed up until now doesn’t really inspire too much confidence in Texas as a high-quality wine growing region, however as I alluded to before, it played a much more important role in global viticulture, and it was not the grapes that were important, but the vine’s roots. As many of you would know (mainly from my previous articles!), in the mid to late 19th century, the majority of Europe’s vineyards were under attack from an invisible foe that was destroying their vines from under the earth; the Phylloxera louse. An American native, this microscopic bug hitched a ride with vines brought across from the New World, and then spread like wildfire throughout Europe, decimating the unprotected vines by chewing holes in their root systems to suck out nutrients.
T.V. Munson was a Texan botanist with deep interest in vine taxonomy. Throughout the 1880’s, he trialled the grafting of European varieties onto American rootstock, which had a natural resistance to the Phylloxera louse due to centuries of exposure. He eventually discovered the best-suited roots to use, and sent these to wineries in France to stave off the assault. It worked, and even now, 130 years later, this method is still the only way a European vine can survive in Phylloxera infested soil. In recognition of Munson’s achievements, the French government made him a Chevalier (knight) of the Ordre du Mérite Agricole (Order of Agricultural Merit).
Wine Sales Manager