People in agriculture know their business is at the mercy of Mother Nature. And she was not particularly kind to the Texas wine industry in 2013. A late spring freeze last year left grape growers across the state harvesting less than a quarter of the average crop numbers they ship to winemakers, and the 2013 vintage suffered as a result.
This April, it seemed history might repeat itself. Another late spring freeze hit both the High Plains and the Hill Country, the main grape growing regions in the state. Now that we’re entering harvest season (it typically runs from early August through mid-October), growers are getting a better picture of how the 2014 vintage will turn out. They’re testing fruit samples for sugar levels (brix), pH levels, and phenolics (chemical compounds that affect the taste, color and mouthfeel of wine), and, depending on who you talk with, the feedback on what to expect is mixed.
The bad news? Yields are generally down, particularly in the High Plains. In some cases, grape tonnage of certain varieties, like Viognier, is down more than half of their average numbers.
“We’re happy with anything we can get, compared to last year,” said Neal Newsom of Newsom Vineyards in Plains, Texas. “Last year the freeze prevented us from harvesting anything. It was devasting. This year, we think we’ll make about a third of the crop. We’re hearing similar stories across the region. It means winemakers will have less wine to produce from this region, and grape growers will receive less income for the shortage of fruit.”
The good news is the quality is fantastic. Reports from a sampling of wineries including Duchman Family Winery, Messina Hof Winery, William Chris Vineyards, Lewis Wines, and McPherson Cellars, all point to the better-than-expected quality of grapes in overall sugar levels, ripeness, and pH.
In fact, some report that the Hill Country is outshining the High Plains in terms of quality, a significant departure from the norm.
“Those late spring freezes set you back more than a year, and after one, it’s really about vineyard management to train those vines back up,” said Doug Lewis of Lewis Wines, near Johnson City. “There’s a certain amount of work that has to be done in the vineyard. If that’s not done, you can forget about making good wine. If there are no more significant freezes I think next year will be pretty exciting. I’m just happy there’s grapes.”
Below, a few direct reports from winemakers and grape growers across the state.
Kim McPherson, McPherson Cellars:
“Harvest this year is a little light, but the quality of the fruit is very very good. We got some beautiful Malbec from Andy Timmons at Lost Draw Vineyards, as well as Viognier. The pH was a little high on the Viognier, but that doesn’t bother me. You have to work with that in Texas.
“What saved my Viognier in the High Plains was the wind machine Andy used on the vineyards. During the freeze, he used it to fan the colder temperatures off the vines and was able to get six tons to the acre. On the blocks that didn’t have the wind machine, he didn’t harvest anything.”
Neal Newsom, Newsom Vineyards:
“We’re only going to deliver about a third to a half of grapes like Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvingon, and Merlot. But our Albariño harvest came in pretty good.
“This summer, we had below normal temperatures and cool nights. Other than the April freeze, everything has gone our way with the weather, and the great news is the quality is going to be astronomical. I can’t wait to try these wines when they’re ready.”
Dave Reilly, Winemaker Duchman Family Winery:
“We’re getting a lot less fruit from the High Plains. We usually get about 9,000 gallons of Vermentino from the Bingham Family Vineyards, but this year we’ve got about 3,000 gallons. We’re also getting less Viognier, but the quality is spot on.
“We’ll be harvesting Aglianico and Montepulciano from the Oswald Vineyard in Brownfield in about a month. The Oswalds have proven themselves as solid grape growers and in terms of quality over quantity and in their attention to detail. I’m really looking forward to getting their fruit in October. I really wish there was more this year because the quality is off the charts. But this is Texas. We’ll take what we can get and do the best with what we have.”
Hill Country, near Fredericksburg:
Dave Reilly, Duchman Family Winery:
“I’m really excited with what we’re seeing from the Hill Country. We just pulled in a huge crop of Mourvedre and Sangiovese from the Salt Lick, and it was just perfect. Jay Knepp continues to get better and better as a grape grower each year as evidenced by the fruit he just gave us. That vineyard has a bright future.”
David Kuhlken, Pedernales Cellars:
“The good news for us has been the high quality coming from Kuhlken Vineyards. The downside was the hail we received back in early May, which severely reduced our yields. These low yields partially account for the quality, but also mean smaller 2014 estate wine lots in Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Grenache, Touriga, and the front Bordeaux varietals. Given these limited quantities in 2014, estate fruit will primarily be limited to wine club wines and select reserve wines.”
Doug Lewis, Lewis Wines:
“We’ve seen some great things in the Hill Country this year. We manage Round Mountain vineyards, and we were blown away by how good the fruit is. We just keep having good years here. I’m in love with the place. It’s only it’s fourth growing season, but it’s fun to see the hard work we’ve put into it really paying off. We have Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cao, and Tempranillo. I think this will be the best Touriga crop we’ve ever had.”
Hill Country North:
Pat Brennan, Brennan Vineyards:
“We got creamed by the April 15, 2014, freeze. Our fruit quality this year is excellent but the quantities are awful. I expect that we will end up with less than 25 percent of the grapes we anticipated.”
Ron Yates, Spicewood Vineyards:
“Our Tempranillo fruit looked almost perfect on the vine and the flavors were the best we have ever had here at Spicewood. Crop yields were historically high for us, but the flavors seemed to rise to the occasion as well this year.”
Hill Country near Mason:
Drew Tallant, Tallant Vineyards:
“In Mason County, we have hickory sand soils. If you compare them to the Fredericksburg area, you may as well be on another planet. We also have a drier climate than Fredericksburg and an ample water supply. This year, everything is looking pretty good. But it’s not really one of those years where you jump up and down and get excited. We will harvest less than usual, but it’s still a really decent amount with some full crops.”
Chris Brundrett, William Chris Vineyards:
“We’re really happy with what we’re seeing from the High Plains and in the Hill Country. The Hye area couldn’t have done a better job. The fruit is just fantastic; it’s right on the numbers we’re looking for, which is a game changer for us. But in East Texas, we’re also really happy with what we’re seeing. We got a little more rain there recently, which is really good for keeping the sugars a little lower and the acids really strong. It’s perfect for our sparkling wines.”
Paul Bonarriogo, Messina Hof Winery:
“Our vineyards in Bryan had a record crop of about 3.5 tons to the acre and our east-central vineyards all had record crops. Compared to the variable crops we got in West Texas and in the High Plains, where most of our crops are off by thirty to fifty percent (but with outstanding quality), we’re really happy with what we’ve seen on the eastern side of the state. We think 2014 will produce great wine overall.”
Greg Bruni, Llano Estacado Winery:
“2014 looks like it will deliver high quality and a reasonable crop from most vineyards on the Texas High Plains. Further west is the Mont Sec vineyard, in Hudspeth County. It’s in its second year of recovery and making about fifty percent of normal on white grapes. We are in the process of concluding our whites and depending on variety and vineyard location we are experiencing variable yields. I expect once our Texas High Plains vineyards are delivered we will see a yields of about fifty to sixty percent of normal. We start harvesting our red grapes in September.”