Recently a friend sent me a link to an article about Spanish wine grape varieties1 that prompted me to think about these grapes, native to the hot, arid Mediterranean regions of Europe, and the success several are enjoying in the Lone Star State. Most of the varieties mentioned in this article are now planted in Texas, and it seemed like a fun challenge to use CLIMATE, in Spain where they are most common and in Texas where these grapes grow well, as a way to connect these varieties. So, a second set of reference sources2 was needed to develop the climate part of the story. Of course, all of this information on grapes and climate is available to anyone with the time and inclination to look it up on various websites, but perhaps this collected summary will make things simpler for Carl’s Corner/Texas Wine Lover readers.
The article by Madeline Puckette1 focused on seven Spanish-origin grape varieties, besides Tempranillo. Most of us are well-aware of Tempranillo, the key grape in Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions of Spain. Tempranillo is widely planted and produces delicious Texas wines, but this summary will follow the lead in the quoted article and focus on the following non-Tempranillo grape varieties:
- Macabeo (aka Viura) – key grape (often blended with Parellada and Xarello) used to produce Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, primarily in the northeastern region of Penedes
- Albariño and Godello – primary white grapes/wines from northwestern Spain
- Viura (aka Macabeo) – key grape in white Rioja wines, sometimes blended with Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca
- Prieto Picudo – dark, richly flavored grape common in the Castilla y Leon region northwest of Madrid
- Garnacha (aka Grenache) – grown all over Spain, but especially in the hot, arid eastern Mediterranean regions of Calatayud and Priorat
- Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre, also called Mataro) – most commonly grown in the hot, southeastern Mediterranean-influenced regions of Valencia and Murcia
When Texans began to plant grapes and learn to make wine, consideration was given to grape varieties that developed and grow well in other regions of the wine world with similar climates. Texas has a wide range of climates in which different grape varieties can either flourish or flounder, so grape variety selection is important. Grapes that may grow and produce well in hot, arid regions may not do so well in more humid, wet regions. Average weather patterns during the growing and harvest season, diurnal temperature variations, and water/rain availability are key contributors to a particular climate, and the same is true in all wine regions, Spain and Texas. So, considering climate characteristics in Spain and Texas provides an interesting look at why and where various Spanish-origin grape varieties do well or not so well.
While reading through this article, it may be helpful to refer to a map of Spanish wine regions. This is a link to one that I found particularly helpful, and a good map of Texas highlighting the primary grape-growing regions and specified AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) can be found via the following link. Also, a quite comprehensive listing of Texas wineries developed by Jeff Cope is found on his Texas Wine Lover website.
Sparkling wines provide a good starting point. Cava is produced in Spain primarily in the northeastern, Mediterranean-influenced region of Penedes from the grape varieties Macabeo (aka Viura), Parellada, and Xarello. A key factor in producing good quality sparkling wines is acidity, the component that makes your mouth water and the wine go so well with most foods. Grapes like these that can provide good acidity are great candidates for making sparkling wine. I am not aware of Texas plantings, certainly not any extensive ones, of the above Spanish varieties, but that might change given the popularity of sparkling wines in Texas tasting rooms (especially with bachelorette, or “bridal posse” groups).
The grape that most often comes to mind for Texas sparkling wine is Chenin Blanc, a native of France’s Loire Valley. Chenin Blanc grows well in the hot, dry Central Valley of California and has a solid history of success in Texas High Plains vineyards. Some of the earliest vineyard plantings in Texas, such as Martin Vineyards and Pheasant Ridge, included Chenin Blanc. A terrific Texas sparkling wine made from Chenin Blanc with which I am familiar comes from veteran winemaker Kim McPherson of McPherson Cellars in Lubbock. This wine has great acidity yet finishes with a subtle smoothness. Because of the heat in Texas, many grapes tend to lose a large portion of their natural acidity before harvest, but Chenin Blanc seems to hold acidity better than most. Thus, this is a great choice for making Texas sparkling wine.
Now, if one could argue for plantings of Macabeo (aka Viura), Parellada, and Xarello in Texas, that argument would certainly include options in the warm, arid Texas High Plains where climate characteristics match parts of Spain’s Penedes region where most Cava is produced. Penedes, a sub-zone of the far northeastern Cataluna (Catalonia) region, surrounding the major city of Barcelona, is classified as having a warm-summer continental climate, and many of the vineyards there are planted on foothills leading up the Pyranees Mountains reaching elevations as high as 3,000 feet. Warm, dry summers, cold winters, and wide diurnal temperature variations in Penedes sound a lot like conditions found on the Texas High Plains.
One more point on Texas sparkling wines involves the current popularity of Petillant Naturel wines, simply called Pét-Nats. These wines are made using an ancient method of bottling and capping a wine that is almost finished fermenting and allowing fermentation to finish in the bottle. This creates carbon dioxide pressure but leaves sediment from the yeast which can be off-putting to some. These Pét-Nats have a moderate level of carbon dioxide pressure, and are most often considered early drinking wines, sort of like a sparkling rosé. Most winemakers like to use less-than totally ripe grapes to produce Pét-Nats so more natural acidity can be preserved in the finished wine. Further, there have been Pét-Nats made from a wide variety of white and red grapes grown in Texas. One Pét-Nat that I really like is made by Sandy Road Vineyards from a Spanish-origin variety Prieto Picudo (see below). If any of the traditional Cava grapes were available, it would be fun to try Pét-Nats made from them.
Moving on, Albariño comes next in the lineup. This grape is commonly grown in the far northwestern Spanish regions of Galicia and Rias Baixas, and just south of these areas in northern Portugal where it is called Alvarinho. These regions are near the Atlantic Ocean which can lead to a bit cooler growing climate than other parts of the Iberian Peninsula. Albariño wines tend to be lighter in body, have citrusy (meyer lemon, mandarin orange) and lime pith characteristics, and are often enjoyed by those who like Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling, and Gruner Veltliner. My favorite comment on Albariño is that the citrus and lime character reminds me of the flavor boost you get by squeezing juice from a lime wedge into a Mexican beer.
It makes sense that much of the Albariño in Texas is grown on the High Plains where cooler nights and greater diurnal temperature variations provide at least some measure of similarity to the climate in Galicia and Rias Baixas, classified as a Galician variant of Oceanic climate. This is similar in some ways to the warmer, drier West Coast regions of the U.S. The closest climate comparison to this in Texas is clearly the high elevation High Plains, that with ample irrigation, can produce good quality Albariño grapes. Some of the vineyards growing Albariño in the Texas High Plains AVA include Oswald Vineyard, Bingham Family Vineyards, Farmhouse Vineyards, Reddy Vineyards, Lost Draw Vineyards, and Lahey Vineyards, all in Terry County. Some delicious Albariño varietal wines available in Texas include McPherson Cellars, Wedding Oak Winery, Pedernales Cellars, Southold Farm + Cellar, Spicewood Vineyards, Eden Hill Winery, Adega Vinho (labeled Alvarinho), and Dry Comal Creek Vineyards.
Godello is another grape variety, like those used to make Cava, that does not appear to be included in many, if any, Texas vineyards. This grape produces medium-bodied white wines that can be compared to lighter-styled Chardonnay and richly textured Chenin Blanc. Godello, like Albariño, is grown primarily in the Spanish region of Galicia, especially in the sub-regions of Valdeorras and Bierzo. These areas combine the Galician variant of Oceanic climate with a warm summer Mediterranean-type climate that includes less rain, dry winds, and warmer overall temperatures. It would seem there are several areas in Texas that could grow Godello based on this climate information. Certainly, the Texas High Plains would be a candidate, but even west-central Texas and the Red River Valley areas might be good options for planting Godello.
Godello wines typically offer aromas and flavors of ripe golden apple, soft citrus, yellow plum, and even tropical notes of pineapple. Many of the best wines are aged in oak barrels and take on textures similar to Chardonnay or Roussanne. I, for one, would like to see Godello get a start in Texas.
Viura is another name for Macabeo, the same grape used in producing Cava. Viura is the primary grape variety grown in the famous Spanish region of Rioja for the production of full-bodied white wines. Fermentation is traditionally done in oak barrels, usually American oak, and the wines are aged for some time, both in barrel and in bottle, before release. The characteristics are then similar to oak-treated Chardonnays and Rhône whites like Roussanne and Viognier.
Aromas and flavors found in Rioja Blanca are typically dried fruit, like pear, pineapple, and banana chips. Herbaceous notes of dill, coconut, and tea leaves can be found, along with oak-derived spice flavors of cinnamon, cardamom, and clove. Wines that are aged longer periods in oak barrels can exhibit slightly oxidized notes of toasted hazelnut and almond.
Wow, it sounds like Viura might be a good candidate for creating wines similar to Chardonnay which, at this point, is not all that commonly grown and produced in Texas. The climate in Rioja where Viura flourishes is classified as continental or warm summer Mediterranean. The warm temperatures along with limited rainfall and frequent drying winds would remind one of several parts of Texas. Add in the typically sandy, rocky soil and relatively high elevations in Rioja, and west-central Texas and the Texas High Plains certainly come to mind. Viura is often blended with a bit of Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca. Malvasia is a grape variety that is enjoying significant popularity right now and is being grown in a number of Texas vineyards. Thus, it might be a good option to take advantage of the climate characteristics where Malvasia is grown, and plant Viura as a complementary variety for rich, white wine blends.
Prieto Picudo is a fairly rare red grape variety that produces medium-bodied red wines in the large northwestern Spanish region of Castilla y Leon, located northwest of Madrid. Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Toro, and Rueda are sub-regions of Castilla y Leon where mostly red wines are produced, and Tempranillo is the primary grape variety. Prieto Picudo is an indigenous variety that is sometimes blended with Tempranillo. The grape has an unusual spear-tip shape with dark, black skin that can add lots of color to a fermentation or blend. Wines typically offer black cherry fruit along with cocoa, dusty earth, and spicy black pepper notes. The grapes, even in very warm conditions, tend to retain their natural acidity which would be a good thing for Texas.
The climate in Rioja, located in the northeast portion of Castilla y Leon, was discussed above. Prieto Picudo is most commonly grown in more southerly areas where temperatures are often warmer, and rainfall is even less. The climate is still classified as continental or warm summer Mediterranean. The warm temperatures along with limited rainfall, frequent drying winds, typically sandy, rocky soil, and relatively high elevations along Spain’s central plateau region bring to mind the geography and climate conditions in west-central Texas and the Texas High Plains.
It turns out that Prieto Picudo has been planted in the Texas Hill Country at Sandy Road Vineyards located north of US-290 and the Pedernales River near the town of Hye. The first vintage (2nd leaf) was used to produce a delicious, richly colored Pét-Nat (noted above). The future goal appears to be big, Spanish-style red blends using Prieto Picudo to enhance Tempranillo and Mencia, another little-known but fascinating Spanish variety that is also planted in Sandy Road Vineyards. Time will tell whether this bold experiment with Prieto Picudo will pay dividends, but based on climate characteristics and talented winemaking, it certainly seems like a good bet.
Garnacha is a very important grape all along the southern European areas of Spain and France that are influenced by the Mediterranean. In France, especially the Rhône Valley, this variety is known as Grenache. This is also the name most widely used in Texas and the rest of the U.S. Garnacha most likely originated in Spain and spread eastward into France. The grape produces medium-bodied red wines and is most often included in blends with other Mediterranean grape varieties, like Syrah, Mourvèdre or Monastrell (see below), Carignan, Cinsault, etc. Garnacha or Grenache represents the “G” in popular “GSM” blends.
Garnacha is widely grown across Spain, but the primary regions of interest are Calatayud, Cataluna (Catalonia), Campo de Borja, and further south, Valencia, all located on or near the eastern Mediterranean coast. Some of the very best Garnacha wines originate in the small appellation of Priorat located in southern Catalonia where vineyards are planted on river valley slopes at elevations of 1,000-2,400 feet. Being somewhat inland from the Mediterranean, the climate is classified as a mix of continental and warm, semi-arid Mediterranean. Summers are long and hot, there is very little rainfall, and the soils are typically rocky. Winters can be harsh with high winds, and this can cause problems with winter vine damage and spring frost episodes. Sound like the Texas High Plains and west Central Texas? Plantings of Garnacha are also seen in Texas Hill Country vineyards.
When grown with limited yields, Garnacha makes wines with jammy black fruit aromas and flavors (blackberry, boysenberry, black cherry). If aged in oak barrels or tanks, notes of smoke, chocolate, and black pepper can be found. These characteristics are similar to rich Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and are found commonly in quality Côtes du Rhône wines that are blends usually containing lots of Grenache.
A surprise for me is that Garnacha grown in Texas tends to be lighter in body and color than expected when compared to many European versions, in spite of the fact that Texas seems to offer the heat and arid conditions needed grow good Garnacha. Several growers and winemakers have suggested that this may not be the result of Texas climate or soil type, but rather a non-optimized clonal selection of the vines planted. This issue will likely improve over the next decade as new vines are planted. But, for now, the best solution seems to be blending with darker, richer grape varieties.
Monastrell is the last of the grape varieties to be discussed here. This amazing variety, a.k.a. Mourvèdre and Mataro, typically produces dark, rich wines with red-black color and black and red fruit aromas and flavors, including chocolate covered cherries, black plums, blueberries, and mulberries. A lot of flavor comparisons can be found in Malbec, Shiraz (Syrah), and Cabernet Sauvignon wines. The best of these wines can be classified as “big boys,” both in Spain and Texas. Oak aging is relatively common and leads to herbal and meaty aromas that only add to the wine’s “bigness.”
Most Monastrell in Spain is grown in the hot, arid central and southeast regions of Valencia and Murcia that border on the Mediterranean. Sub-regions of particular interest include Jumilla, Alicante, and Yecla. It is thought that the French adaptation of the name to Mourvèdre came from the area of Murviedro located in southern Valencia, where the grape is grown extensively. These areas have climates classified as Hot Summer Typical Mediterranean where summers are quite hot, winters are mild, and most of what little precipitation that does fall comes in autumn. Now we begin to think about the lower elevation, really hot areas of Texas, like the Texas Hill Country, central West Texas, and the western Permian Basin region. It seems that a lot of Monastrell, or Mourvèdre as we call it in Texas, is already planted in these regions.
Madeline Puckette writes in her article, “If you’re mostly a “New World” wine drinker, but want to start exploring European wines, Spain presents a clear bridge into the old world. The sun-kissed Mediterranean climate that influences most of the country gives many of the wines a juicy, fruit-forward flavor profile, while also containing the significant savory flavors that European wines are famous for.” However, if you are a Texan, you will want to focus on the delicious wines being produced from these Spanish-origin grape varieties right here in the Lone Star State. Buen estado de salud!!
17 Spanish Wines (Other Than Tempranillo) Worth Drinking Right Now, Wine Folly, 21-Apr-2016 (Updated 01-Feb-2021), by Madeline Puckette, James Beard Award-winning author & Wine Communicator of the Year, co-founder of Wine Folly
2a. Climate of Spain – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_of_Spain
b. The Weather and Climate in Spain – https://www.tripsavvy.com/weather-in-spain-1644274
c. Spain Climate – https://www.britannica.com/place/Spain/Climate
d. The Climate in Spain – https://www.spain.info/en/weather