At the inaugural Texas Wine Revolution festival, hosted by William Chris Vineyards and attended by 25 other wineries, the future of Texas wine was on display. Despite the steady growth in wineries, the industry faces its share of challenges. And these challenges can be overcome, as clearly seen at this new festival and the collection of excellent rosés.
A lucky few attended a Q&A panel with five industry representatives: Rae Wilson, Austin sommelier and owner of Wine for the People, led a panel with Chris Brundrett of William Chris Vineyards, Doug Lewis of Lewis Wines, Andy Timmons of Lost Draw Vineyards and Lost Draw Cellars, and Shane Stark of Mongers Market + Kitchen.
The first issue faced by the industry is a lack of education. Chris shared a story about a friend who had come to visit, who after a day along 290, purchased very few 100% Texas wines when he thought he had. This misconception is one well known through the Texas wine industry. The average consumer is familiar with the better known wine states like California, who have strict labeling rules that state the wine must be 95%-100% from the labeled region. Consumers then apply this to Texas wine, which is not always the case. Texas follows the federal law that allows providing a region of origin is at least 75% the grapes came from the region. Consumer education poses quite a difficulty for producers like William Chris and others who sell only 100% Texas wine.
But how to deal with this pressing issue? Mainly, those on the front lines, the people who pour wine, must educate an uninformed public. Those wineries proud of their 100% Texas grapes make an effort to let their guests know, even as much as informing them about exact vineyards. But that is not always enough. Chris Brundrett and other like-minded individuals decided to have a 100% Texas grown wine festival, providing more education in an enjoyable and positive way.
Producing 100% Texas wine is a challenge. Though there are a number of advantages, growers face many obstacles. One of the main ones is climate. First, Texas often sees late freezes that can hurt any grapes that have an early bud break, which include many popular varieties. Then not long after, Texas prepares for Spring hail. And if a vineyard makes it through all that, there are other issues to deal with like pests, disease, and humidity. In the Hill Country, the growing season and harvest are both short. For example, the day before the festival, Spicewood Vineyards harvested their 2016 Chardonnay.
Yes, vines love the heat and lack of rain, but too much too soon can cause issues. Vines face the stress of hot sunny days, which can produce great wine; however, they also need rest. Cooler nights are not quite as common as 100 degree days, especially in the Hill Country. The High Plains, where at least 80% of Texas grapes are grown, luckily has the diurnal temperature shift, but even there, they do not enjoy the greater one found in California.
These problems make growing enough quality grapes in Texas difficult. In fact, Texas is the seventh largest state in grape growing but fifth in wine production. That means some wines made in Texas do not come from Texas grapes. For the longest time, Texas could not produce enough grapes to meet the demand. However, that should no longer be the case. The 2015 harvest saw extra grapes available. 2016 looks to be the same. Andy Timmons says things will change next year, as Texas will have 5000 acres of grapes to harvest.
And despite the hard work and risk involved, the wine industry in Texas is growing. The reasons for the success lies in the economics. Farmers in the High Plains struggle with traditional crops; cotton, for instance, uses too much water. Also, these crops have lost and continue to lose their government subsidies every year. Farmers are left with few options and dwindling income. That is where grapes fit in. They need very little water and a smaller workforce, so the farmers save money while making money.
And that money does more. Many of the farming communities struggle with unemployment and low wages. Grape growing helps to alleviate that problem. Vineyard workers must have the necessary skills, which also mean higher pay. And retaining that trained workforce is essential. This equates to better paying and more stable jobs for those in Texas agriculture. Andy Timmons happily announced that whole communities are growing where once they were shrinking, all due to grapes.
And though skilled labor is required, that skill can come in many forms. Chris Brundrett said those working in the vineyard do not specifically need a college education. Programs, like one in Mason ISD, can give high school students the skills needed to land a good vineyard position. And of course certificate programs like the one offered by Texas Tech which includes classes in the Texas Hill Country, provides more without the full college commitment. Texans now have yet another field that provides opportunity.
To make vineyards pay off, as well as be able to furnish wineries with only the best quality grapes, growers and wineries must choose the right grapes. And many of those grapes make great rosé. In fact, this style of wine stands as one of the best examples of the Texas’s wine industry’s success and ingenuity. In fact, rosé seems made for Texas. When it comes to Texas, food like BBQ and Mexican cuisine, Shane Stark says rosé makes for the perfect pairing. In fact, it pairs with many other popular Texas dishes like quail, ceviche, cheese, and fruit (like peaches). But most of all, the wine style takes advantage of both Texas’s strengths and weaknesses.
Growing rosé specific grapes has its advantages. Many have a later bud break, avoiding the damage of late freezes, and they handle extreme heat exceptionally well. For growers like Andy Timmons, growing grapes for rosé is actually easier. He can more easily deliver higher quality grapes. In addition, grapes for rosé offer flexibility. If a harvest does not look especially promising, such as grapes not ripening enough for quality red wines, Doug Lewis says those grapes can still make an incredible rosé.
Best of all is the economic side of rosé. For the consumer, rosés are a bargain. For $15-$30, the average consumer can enjoy rosés of the same quality as higher priced whites and reds from the same region. This also helps the wineries. Rosé harvested this year may be sold out by harvest of the next year. Rosé is a quick turn-around, which means a steady profit. So owners like Doug Lewis can make a steady profit, giving them the ability to age red wines. It seems everyone wins with rosé.
Rosé grapes provide flexibility, but they do not just do that in the vineyard but also in the winemaking process. To make pink wine, mainly from red grapes, winemakers can take two separate approaches: direct press and saignée. No matter which approach a winemaker chooses, a few aspects remain similar.
For one, there is contact with red grape skins (and seeds). The skins and seeds in red grapes give the wine tannins and color. For pink wine, some contact is needed. The time can be relatively short, a few hours, or longer, like a day or more. This timing will affect color and tannins, among other properties.
Also, rosé is usually aged in stainless steel tanks (or similar constructions like concrete) much like a white wine. By going this route, the wine retains its minerality and crispness, key components of a good rosé. That is not to say that barrel aging is not done. Wood, both aging with wood chips in the tank or in a barrel, helps retain color.
Though both methods limit the skin to juice contact, the time is really what makes the difference. With direct press, the juice comes off the skins and seeds quickly. The limited contact produces much lighter shades of pink, including ones that have only the faintest hint. In these cases, winemakers use all of the grapes specifically for rosé. In fact, this method works well with the grape varieties grown in Texas, as well as the various situations that cause grapes to be harvested when not quite ripe and higher in acids.
As for saignée, the juice remains in contact with the skin and seeds longer. This older method relies on some of the juice from the red grapes being drained off. In the end, this method produces rosés with darker colors and more tannins. It also means some juice is left behind to continue the fermentation process with the skins. The red wine that will come from the remaining juice will have more direct contact with the skins and seeds, creating a more concentrated red.
Throughout history, Texans have faced and overcome adversity. Conditions may seem against them, but they employ dedication, ingenuity, and passion to meet the challenge. And for the Texas wine industry, that pays off. The average consumer may not know the hard work grape growers and winemakers put in to make the wines enjoyed along any of the Texas wine trails. However, thanks to festivals like Texas Wine Revolution, anyone can get a chance to experience the fruits of their labor first-hand, and to celebrate current and future success.