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Texas Wines: Behind the Cellar Door

Not all the Texas wine you buy is made from grapes grown in our state. In fact, most of it isn’t.

Although the "natural wine" movement lacks any official doctrine and is splintered into often combative factions, "natural" winemakers are united in their rejection of commercial — as opposed to naturally occurring "ambient" — yeast, acidification and the addition of any other chemicals that will shape the flavor profile and mouthfeel of the wine. And while modern winemaking is virtually impossible without the use of sulfur dioxide (in racking and bottling), natural winemakers strive to use sulfur sparingly. In Dickson's case, he racks and bottles with no sulfur whatsoever. (Sulfur is commonly employed whenever wine is exposed to oxygen before bottling in order to prevent unwanted oxidation and the formation of bacteria that can spoil wine.)

It's the leading Texas wineries that are now finally shifting from the Napa model of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (traditionally grown in the coastal climate of Bordeaux), and Chardonnay (most famously grown in the cool climate of Burgundy) toward Mediterranean varieties like Italian Vermentino and Aglianico (as in the case of Duchman Family Winery) and grapes grown traditionally in Spain and the Rhône Valley of France (as in the case of McPherson and Becker).

But Dickson attributes his ability to make additive-free wines to the fact that he grows cultivars well suited to the challenges of Texas winemaking.

Haak Vineyards in Santa Fe thrives on the humid Gulf Coast due in part to the varietals it chooses to grow.
Katharine Shilcutt
Haak Vineyards in Santa Fe thrives on the humid Gulf Coast due in part to the varietals it chooses to grow.
Katharine Shilcutt

For his flagship white wine, he uses Blanc du Bois, the same grape as Raymond Haak. It's a hybrid created by University of Florida researchers and first used for commercial wine production in 1987, developed with the intention of providing a variety resistant to Pierce's Disease (Xylella fastidiosa) and its carrier, the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which represent a potentially devastating plague native to the southeastern U.S. Its berries are naturally high in acidity, allowing Dickson to maintain healthy acidity levels in the wine without acidification despite the oppressive heat of the Texas summer.

For a new monovarietal red he plans to release in the future, he will use Black Spanish, a variety grown in Texas since 1889 that's naturally high in acidity and naturally resistant to Pierce's Disease, possibly as the result of spontaneous genetic mutation. The high level of naturally occurring acidity in the must pressed from these grapes, notes Dickson, not only makes it possible to forgo acidification, it also acts as a natural preservative, thus allowing him to bottle without the use of sulfur.

But Dickson's extreme approach to viticulture means that his wines are expensive — around $35 to $40 a bottle retail. And he's not alone in this problem. The few really excellent wines in Texas tend to be somewhat pricey — and that's an issue Texas will continue to struggle with for at least the next decade.
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Beyond Dickson's approach, there are other ways to deliver quality in Texas wine without the crutch of acidification — and without the associated costs that are ultimately passed down to the consumer.

Bronx-born Sicilian-American Paul Bonarrigo, who sources much of the fruit for his Messina Hof winery from the High Plains, has his vineyard managers pick the grapes earlier than most growers. As a result, they are still high in acidity, although low in sugar. For his Texas-grown Chenin Blanc and his Riesling, for example, he arrests fermentation through the use of sophisticated microfilters that remove the active yeast, thus retaining enough sugar to produce "semisweet" expressions of the raw material.

Bonarrigo is one of the industry's most colorful characters, a brilliant marketer who credits the millennial generation's taste for wine and a burgeoning locavore movement for the wild success of his labels. His semisweet wines are highly popular with consumers in Texas (the fourth-largest in wine consumption in the U.S., says industry chronicler Russ Kane, author of a 2011 narrative guide to the wines of Texas, The Wine-Slinger Chronicles). Even Houston wine legend Bear Dalton, longtime fine wine buyer for Spec's, is a devoted fan of the Messina Riesling and its so-called "Port" and "Sherry."

But beyond our state's borders, where semisweet wines are considered a relic of the past and where wine enthusiasts increasingly favor dry, food-friendly wines, do wine experts and the wine-industry media take our wines seriously? And in a globalized world where wine lovers have access to immense value in fine wine thanks to the widespread availability of wines from Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the many wine-producing countries in the New World, where price-quality ratio is virtually unbeatable, are Texas winemakers exploiting Texans' love of homegrown (or at least home-bottled) alcohol while delivering highly manipulated products often sourced from other wine-growing regions but labeled as "Texas wine"? Perhaps now, but that's not how the future of Texas wines is shaping up; we can be fooled for only so long.

In the meantime, making semisweet wines is one way to keep costs down and interest in Texas wines high. But when you're talking about making the kinds of wines found at Duchman Family Wineries — where its critically acclaimed Vermentino and Aglianico have taken the Texas wine world by storm — making inexpensive wine gets a lot more difficult. That's because you get what you pay for. (Disclosure: Co-author Jeremy Parzen writes for the Duchman Web site's blog; he did not interview anyone associated with the winery for the purposes of this story.)

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17 comments
Burris Travis
Burris Travis

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Burris Travis
Burris Travis

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Bobbygrape
Bobbygrape

I would like to clarify my quote. I said that 99 % of Texas is unsuitable for COMMERCIAL winegrowing. That means a winegrowing venture that I would smile at if you invested your 401-K in because you would receive a nice return . That's 1.7 million acres guys, over three times the size of CA winegrowing. Lewis Dixon is a swell guy but he will never "make the market" with those wines at that price point but Dave, Paul and Richard are developing a true market for Texas grown wines. Drink up we'll grow more! Bobby Cox

Billy
Billy

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Stevemorgan
Stevemorgan

When are we going to hear back from our authors about all the mis-information in this article? For example, wrong information on the Hill Country AVA, wrong information about the acreage in all the AVA's mentioned, and leaving out the information that other areas and countries use "tartaric acid" and other additives to their wine. Are the wines of France and Germany leading the life of a "dirty little secret" because they sometimes add sugar?

Gilbert
Gilbert

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Gilbert
Gilbert

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Circle S Vineyards
Circle S Vineyards

We've been growing Mediterranean varietals in our Centerville, Texas vineyards and producing the wines in our Sugar Land, Texas location for over a dozen years now. As most growers have discovered they do very well here in Texas. We just this week released our 2009 Nebbiolo. Lots of Texas wineries fight the same battle; customers only know "Cab" or "Merlot" so then the education process begins.

Patrick Davies
Patrick Davies

This story is misleading. Texas is not alone in using "chemicals" like Tartaric Acid. Which, by the way, is not some inorganically derived petroleum or otherwise based nasty thing. Tartaric acid is the acid that makes up over 90% of a grapes total organic acid content. And,as decreed by federal law, it must be derived from grapes and not produced through chemical reactions of non-grape material. Most, if not all, is produced in the US or Europe. Also, From Walla-walla all the way down to Temecula and everywhere in-between, Tartaric Acid is used in ABUNDANCE. California, Washington, Oregon and yes Texas. In addition, Naturally occurring yeast is seldom the case. One will find that in brand new vineyards, with a brand new winery... there is nothing natural that will properly convert grape juice to drinkable wine. Usually what happens is after a few years of standard winemaking, the wine cellar starts building up cultures of cross-bred wine yeasts, derived from the multitude of "pharmaceutical" grade yeasts used in prior years.

Mann Rita
Mann Rita

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SueB
SueB

Shoddy "journalism"at it's finest. Since 2009, the TX Hill Country AVA has been the third largest, not the second largest AVA in the U.S. Try some research!

Gentry June
Gentry June

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Dustin Kalman
Dustin Kalman

This is something I've known for a while. We need more grapes grown in Texas and they have to be the RIGHT grapes. The only problem I have with this article is that it makes it sound like Haak doesn't buy any grapes from outside of Texas. They have and I believe they still do but since they properly label & market their wines, I have no problem with this practice.

Joe Pat Clayton
Joe Pat Clayton

I've been telling Texas winemakers for years, grow the right grapes for the terroir. Wine should be about passion, unfortunately a good portion of the people that decide to start a winery project in Texas underestimate the business side of the wine industry and follow the Pied Piper of the same ol' varietals that grow everywhere else. It takes people that believe in what they are doing, like Mr. Dixon and Dr. Duchman, to go tie on a flour sack cape and jump off the barn. Sometimes you land in soft hay, sometimes you land in horse

Jeff Cope
Jeff Cope

Russ made some very good points with the need for accepting grapes other than the norm. This article was interesting as we just got back from our first trip to the High Plains. It concerns me as apparently the wineries are deceiving the consumers. For example, on our visit to Llano Estacado when asked what percentage of TX grapes they use, replied 90%. Reading this article, it's just the opposite where it said 90% are out of state. We met up with quite a few grape growers in the High Plains. For a long time I have heard that Texas just doesn't grow enough grapes requiring the wineries to go out of state for fruit. I asked more than one grape grower why that was the case when there is plenty of unplanted land owned by the vineyards in the High Plains. The answer by all was pointing the finger back at the wineries with answers such as they are not able to accept more grapes or are not able to handle the capacity for production. If the need was there, they would gladly plant more. But if there isn't anybody ready to accept the extra grapes, it is a loss on the grape grower's part. I look forward to the day when we have no problem in finding a 100% grown Texas wine. Jeff Cope

Russ Kane
Russ Kane

Just read this, but it fits with this story: "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." - T.S. Elliot

Russ Kane
Russ Kane

Good pentrating view of the Texas wine industry and its challenges. You've highlighted an important aspect that needs to be handled before a major ramp up in production of Texas grapes can possibly fulfill demand. The grapes for Texas have to want to grow here. This is actually a very simple concept, but with a complicated path as it will likely not include the most commonly known grapes in the American wine lexicon. Texas winegrowers are still in the hunt for their wine grapes with some good successes with Blanc Du Bois, Vermentino, Tempranillo, Aglianico, Viognier and Roussanne. They have started producing award winning wines at the International level. However, effort now needs focus on making these wines dependably, economically and sustainably year in and year out. And, of course, working to get the word out that great wines can be made from grapes other than Cab, Merlot, Chard and Pinot. Once this happens, investment will follow and expansion in vineyards will eventually meet the demand as it has in all of the other wine producting regions. However, it may take 10, 30 or over 100 years just as it has in other wine producing regions around the world. However, 10-20 fits my timeline and lifetime and I'm enjoying the variety as the experiments continue. Cheers, Russ Kane

 
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