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One’s immediate associations of the state of Texas most often have to do with spurred boots, ten gallon hats, lassos, large portions of barbecue and conservative governors with creative interpretations of the English language. But Texas is also home to the country’s earliest wine industry, and is now the fifth-largest wine-producing state behind California, Oregon, Washington, and New York. We may not even be drinking decent wine from anywhere at all if it weren’t for a Texan. Want to learn more about Texas wine? Well, giddy up!
In the 17th century, as in California, Spanish Franciscan missionaries came to Texas and planted Mission grapes (Listán Negro) for sacramental wines, the first ones near El Paso. This continued to spread into the 18th century. Once European immigrants settled here, especially Italian ones, wines were produced for more pleasurable drinking purposes. Frank Qualia established Val Verde, the oldest continuously operational winery, in 1883 in Del Rio, in Southwest Texas. He started with Mission and also discovered the native Lenoir grape, diversifying his vineyard with various vinifera types such as Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Muscat Canelli as he progressed. His son, Louis Qualia, took over in 1936.
Pierce’s Disease is a bacterial infection that afflicts plants in the Gulf Coast, and a major obstacle for growing grape vines in Texas. Frank Qualia is credited with testing many different vines for their resistance to Pierce’s and rot, another frequent hindrance. His findings influenced many other viticultural enterprises throughout the state.
But one cannot properly discuss Texas wine history without mention of Thomas Volney Munson. Between 1880 and 1910, this man traveled thousands of miles to classify, breed, study, test, and promote hundreds of grape varieties. He received great acclaim for his comprehensive findings for the Exhibition of American Grapes at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. He established breeding programs to find the most disease-resistant and climatically suitable cultivars for growth in Texas, known as the “Munson varieties,” and consulted elsewhere. In fact, he is the man who discovered that grafting American rootstock to European vinifera stopped Phylloxera, those pesky little varmints that destroyed the world’s vines in the late 1880s. To this day, many of the vines that exist in France and Europe are relatives of original Texas rootstock. He received the Legion of Honor for his brilliance. And when not saving the world from inferior grape juice, he found time to study ancient philosophy and spiritualism.
But not even T.V. Munson could stop the Temperance Movement and the Great Depression. Val Verde was the only winery in Texas to weather this storm, likely granted a license to produce wines for religious purposes to the devoted (and those who suddenly “found” some spiritual inclinations). It wasn’t until the late 20th century that the Texas wine industry recovered. Today, there are eight Texas AVA regions. Most of the vineyards are located in the North-Central, South-Eastern, and Trans-Pecos areas of the state. Any farther south and east is far too warm for quality viticulture, though that hasn’t stopped some stubborn producers to give it a shot anyway.
Texas High Plains, what many consider the highest quality region, and the second largest AVA, is located in the panhandle centered around Lubbock. Wineries outside the region are known to source grapes from here. This area benefits from a higher altitude and moisture-rich, sandy loam and limestone soil. Warm days, cool nights and low rainfall make this a very suitable area to fully ripen grapes without fear of rot. Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant varietal, but emerging grapes such as Tannat, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Mourvedre, Viognier and Dolcetto are becoming popular. Old standbys Zinfandel, Grenache, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Canelli, and Chardonnay are also found here.
The Hill Country lives up to its name, with iconic scenes of green expanse, gentle hills, and canyons. It can get quite hot here, and wine-makers have resigned themselves to abandoning Bordeaux (or even Napa) dreams and embracing the circumstances. Instead of Cabernet, Merlot, etc., the best-suited grapes are those from the Rhone, Italy and Spain, such as Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Viognier. Many wineries dabble with fortified wines in the Port style since they’re so conducive to warm weather conditions. The AVA is split into two appellations, Bell Mountain and Fredericksburg, and two major cities, San Antonio and the capital city of Austin are located within it. Most of the wine has not gained attention outside the local area, but perhaps that will change soon.
The wines from other AVAs are even more rare outside of Texas:
*Texoma, the location where Munson did most of his Phylloxera research ~Amanda Schuster
– Description from
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