American Viticultural Areas, AVAs, are an important part of the U.S. wine landscape. AVAs distinguish specific winegrowing regions and help growers, wineries, and wine enthusiasts better define and understand where grapes and wines originate.
An AVA designation on a wine label allows vintners to describe the place of origin of the grapes used to produce their wines and help consumers identify wines with characteristics they prefer to purchase. In the broadest sense, grapes can come from anywhere – another country, anywhere else in the U.S. (another state), anyplace in Texas, or from a more specifically defined region, area, or even vineyard in Texas. Does an AVA designation matter? – Sure, it does, especially to grape growers and winemakers! And it is beginning to matter more to consumers. So, as suggested in Part One of this series, open a delicious Texas wine, sit back, and learn more about the AVAs of Texas.
Texas has eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the state as shown in Figure 1: Texas Hill Country AVA #136; Bell Mountain AVA #55; Fredericksburg in the THC AVA #125; Texas High Plains AVA #144; Texoma AVA #185; Mesilla Valley AVA #100; Davis Mountains AVA #155; and Escondido Valley AVA #141.
Texas Hill Country AVA – Where Most Texas Wineries are Located
The Texas Hill Country is the central Texas region containing the largest concentration of wineries and where most of the wine tourist trade happens. This huge AVA was approved by TTB in 1991 as U.S. AVA number 136 of the current 261 (as of 09-Mar-2022). The records exist in the Code of Federal Regulations – CFR 27 9.136.
The Texas Hill Country (THC) AVA is the second largest and southernmost AVA in the U.S. (see map in Figure 2) including northern portions of San Antonio up to San Saba and stretching about 150 miles west of the IH-35 corridor and Austin to Rocksprings. The AVA contains about 200 wineries and approximately 1,200 planted acres of vineyards. The AVA was established under the leadership of Ed and Susan Auler, founders of Fall Creek Vineyards located north of Fredericksburg along the banks of the Colorado River.
Note from Carl Hudson, author of this post:
With some help from January Wiese, director of Texas Hill Country Wineries, and fellow Texas Wine Lover Contributing Writer, Shelly Wilfong, I have learned that the Texas Hill Country AVA, established as 27 CFR § 9.136 in 1991, is actually the THIRD largest AVA in America, not the second. It is still the most southern AVA and covers a huge area of over 9 million acres, all within the state of Texas.
The largest AVA in America is the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA (over 19 million acres) that was established as 27 CFR § 9.216 in 2009 and includes all or parts of 4 states – Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
The second largest AVA in America is the Ohio River Valley AVA (16.6 million acres) that was established as 27 CFR § 9.78 in 1969 and included all or parts of 4 states – Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. The AVA was amended in 1987 when the Indiana Uplands AVA was approved and separated from the Ohio River Valley AVA, slightly reducing the size down to 15.6 million acres.
There are many types of soils and mini-climates in the Texas Hill Country, including almost desert-like flatlands, steep rocky hillsides, gently rolling plains, and twisting valleys, especially along the Pedernales River, San Saba River, and the Colorado River’s chain of Highland Lakes. The climate is primarily sub-tropical, hot, and dry with lots of sun and moderate diurnal temperature variation of about 15-25oF. With the significant number of wineries and tasting rooms located within the AVA, this is the place most people think about when planning to visit Texas wine country. It is estimated that over 5 million visitors taste wine in the Texas Hill Country each year.
The 30+ mile stretch of U.S. Hwy 290 along the Pedernales River between Johnson City and Fredericksburg has been called “The Texas Wine Route” (Wine Road 290) and is traveled by about 1.5 million vehicles every year. There are currently over 80 wineries or tasting rooms (of some type) located on or near this major road. With the popular tourist destination of Fredericksburg anchoring the western end of Wine Road 290, this area has become the second most visited wine destination in America, second only to Napa Valley in California. Texans love the Hill Country, and apparently, they love Texas wine, too.
Fully contained within the boundaries of the Texas Hill Country and Gillespie County are two sub-AVAs, tiny Bell Mountain, northeast of Fredericksburg, and Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country. It is interesting to note both of them were established before the Texas Hill Country AVA but were included in that larger region.
Elevation ranges from about 1,400 to nearly 2,000 feet. A wide range of soil types includes limestone, granite, clay, and sandstone. Typical rainfall of only about 30 inches per year forces most vineyards to be irrigated. Key features include the Edwards Plateau, Enchanted Rock, the Pedernales River basin, and the Colorado River and its chain of Highland Lakes.
The boundary of the Texas Hill Country was established using seven U.S.G.S. topographical maps and includes all or portions of 23 counties. The following is a summary of the boundary description provided in the AVA petition to the TTB. Starting at the intersection of IH-35 and TX-29, near Georgetown north of Austin, follow TX-29 to intersect US-183 and continue northwesterly on US-183 through Lampasas to intersect TX-190 near Lometa. Follow US-190 westerly through San Saba and Brady to intersect US-83 in Menard. Follow US-83 southward to intersect US-377 near Junction and continue on US-377 to intersect TX-55 in Rocksprings. Follow TX-55 southeasterly to intersect US-83 near Uvalde. From the US-83 and US-90 intersection south of Uvalde, follow US-90 to intersect Loop 410 in San Antonio. Follow Loop 410 eastward across the city to intersect IH-35, then northeasterly on IH-35 through New Braunfels, San Marcos, and Austin to the starting point intersection of IH-35 and TX-29 near Georgetown. Who knew that the northern part of the city of San Antonio was in the Texas Hill Country?
Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country is a mid-sized AVA covering 70,400 acres (110 sq miles) centered around the historic town of Fredericksburg in Gillespie County. Both Fredericksburg (located 80 miles west of the Texas capital, Austin) and the wider Hill Country lie on the eastern third of the Edwards Plateau – a limestone-rich savanna that covers a significant portion of western-central Texas. Although Fredericksburg has its own AVA, most wineries use Texas Hill Country on their wine labels since producers maintain the Texas Hill Country appellation is more recognizable and appreciated by consumers.
Fredericksburg’s soils are mostly clay-based loams with limestone and granite dotted here and there where the undulating hills visibly expose the rock. The free-draining qualities of the better soils are most beneficial during the late summer months when the region’s highest rainfall is recorded. Given the low latitude (30°N) and the subtropical climate here, grapevines are surprisingly exposed to pronounced frost problems in the spring. It becomes an even greater risk in higher elevation areas, particularly when Easter-time freezes expose early budding varieties to significant frost damage. The other major danger is hail accompanying violent thunderstorms.
Bell Mountain AVA was established in 1986, largely due to the efforts of Bob Oberhelman, then president and winemaker at Bell Mountain Vineyards, the sole winery in the AVA. The area covers 3,200 acres and was established as the 55th AVA in the U.S. well before the surrounding Texas Hill Country was designated as the 136th in 1991. It was the first designated wine area entirely within the state of Texas and is located about 15 miles north of Fredericksburg near Enchanted Rock and scenic Willow City Loop. The key feature is the peak of Bell Mountain at 1,956 ft.
The climate, soils, and overall characteristics of the Texas Hill Country AVA tend to favor grape varieties that prefer hot, arid growing conditions such as those found in the Mediterranean regions of Spain, France, and Italy. Even though valiant efforts are made to produce Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, most growers and vintners have found that hardy red varieties like Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Tannat, widely grown in southern France, tend to thrive in the region. Other reds like Italian Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and Sagrantino, and Spanish Tempranillo, along with white grapes like Viognier, Vermentino (or Rolle in Southern France), some Muscat varieties, and the muscat hybrid Blanc du Bois are also grown in Central Texas.
Texas High Plains AVA – Where Most Texas Grapes are Grown
The Texas High Plains (THP) is the second largest Texas AVA (third largest in the U.S.). It is centered around the Lubbock-Brownfield-Plains area, from the Caprock escarpment westward to New Mexico. The AVA contains approximately 8 million acres or 12,500 sq miles and includes parts or all of 24 counties. Currently, about 5,000 acres of vineyards are in production, but more acreage is being planted each year.
This southern part of the Texas Panhandle is well-known for agriculture, mostly cotton, grain, and soybeans. Many cotton farmers have established vineyards as a valuable alternative cash crop, one that uses significantly less irrigation water, their most valuable resource. So long as ample irrigation water is available, this area has a distinct viticultural advantage due to the vine-friendly sandy loam soils, and relatively high elevation that allows for warm days and cool nights in which grape vines thrive. Higher elevations also mean more intense direct sunlight, allowing more efficient photosynthesis as grapes ripen with thicker skins that can lead to more color, flavor, and tannins in the wines. Early spring frosts can be a critical issue in this area, and research is focused on identifying and developing late-budding varieties and clones to minimize the danger of freeze damage.
A significant number of Texas High Plains vineyards are scattered along U.S. Hwy 380, commonly called the “Grape Route of Texas,” running from Tahoka westward through Brownfield and Plains to the New Mexico border. Most vineyards are on relatively flat terrain at elevations between 3,000-4,000 ft above sea level. Because these Texas plains can be extremely dry, most vineyards require irrigation with water from the important Ogallala Aquifer that runs from the Dakotas all the way south to Texas – a key feature for the AVA petition.
The following is a summary of the boundary description provided in the AVA petition to the TTB. From the TX-NM border east of Hobbs, NM, follow US-180 eastward through Seminole to Lamesa where one intersects the 3,000-ft contour line of the Caprock Escarpment. The eastern boundary follows the 3,000-ft contour line in a generally northeasterly direction passing through portions of Borden, Garza (west of Post), Crosby, corner of Dickens and Motley (Matador), into Briscoe (Quitaque, Silverton), and the southwest corner of Armstrong counties to intersect TX-217 east of Canyon. From TX-217, proceed west to intersect US-60 and follow US-60 southwesterly through Hereford to intersect the TX-NM border at Farwell, TX, near Clovis, NM. The western border is then the TX-NM borderline south to the beginning point, the intersection with US-180 east of Hobbs, NM.
The Caprock Escarpment is a steep transitional zone that separates the western High Plains from the lower eastern plains. Parts or all of 24 Texas counties are included in the south Texas High Plains, with Hockley (Levelland), Terry (Brownfield), Yoakum (Plains), and Gaines (Seminole, Seagraves) being the primary counties where vineyards have been established.
In the 1950s, Dr. W.W. Yocum, a professor of horticulture at Texas Tech University, planted grapevines in research plots on campus. A decade later, during the construction and expansion of the university, Professors Bob Reed, horticulture, and Clinton “Doc” McPherson, chemistry, saved some of the growing vines and planted them in their Lubbock gardens. They found that the grapevines adapted well to the High Plains environment and expanded the plantings. The Texas Agricultural Experiment Station funded further research in 1968. Eight years later, after experimenting with fermentation in a chemistry lab at Texas Tech and receiving more grant money, McPherson, Reed, and partners founded Llano Estacado Winery, the first winery in West Texas to go into production after Prohibition. It is the second oldest winery in the state after Val Verde Winery in Del Rio, which opened in 1883 and maintained continuous operation throughout Prohibition by providing grapes to family winemakers and sacramental wines to the Catholic church.
In 1992, McPherson compiled 112 pages on the climate, geology, and history of viticulture in the area to accompany the TTB application for the Texas High Plains. Today about 75 grape varieties are grown on approximately 5,000 acres within the AVA. Grapes for many Texas wineries come from key growers on the Texas High Plains, including Diamanté Doble Vineyard near Tokio, Lahey Vineyards, Timmons Estate Vineyard, and Lost Draw Vineyards near Brownfield, Bingham Family Vineyards near Meadow, and Krick-Hill Vineyards near Levelland.
Although most Texas wineries lie further south in the Texas Hill Country AVA and North-Central Texas regions, a few major wineries are located in the Texas High Plains, including Llano Estacado Winery and English-Newsom Cellars southeast of Lubbock, McPherson Cellars, and Burklee Hill Vineyards in Lubbock, and Farmhouse Vineyards in Brownfield. Kim McPherson, who owns and operates McPherson Cellars, maintains “Doc” McPherson’s original experimental Sagmor Vineyard located south of Lubbock.
Because of the distance from the Texas High Plains to the Texas Hill Country, transporting grapes can be an issue. One partial solution in recent years has been the development of two major custom crush facilities, Texas Custom Wine Works in Brownfield and Texas Wine Company in Meadow. Both can handle most winery operations ranging from grape delivery, refrigeration for shipping, crushing, fermentation, and wine aging, to bottling and storage of finished wines. These operations have certainly eased logistic issues for many wineries around the state.
The region’s naturally low nutrient sandy loam soils allow growers to determine when and how much of these nutrients are needed for the crop allowing for better control during cultivation. The near-level vineyards, mostly devoid of rocks and trees, allow most operations like planting, maintenance, and harvest, to be done mechanically, a significant advantage over hand maintenance, especially with limited manpower resources found in the region. Although the AVA typically receives less than 20 inches of precipitation per year and the Texas summer heat can be a challenge, viticulture seems to thrive in the Texas High Plains AVA.
The climate, soils, and overall characteristics of the Texas High Plains tend to favor grape varieties that prefer warm, arid continental climate conditions such as those found in the Mediterranean regions of France, Spain, and Italy. The Texas High Plains with its high elevation, prolific sun exposure during the growing season, and relatively large diurnal temperature variations probably offers the best area in Texas to grow Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Sauvignon Blanc. Varieties common to the Loire Valley in France like Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc also grow well on the Texas High Plains. Most of the Mediterranean grape varieties like Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Italian Sangiovese and Montepulciano, and Spanish Tempranillo, are good performers. With the slightly cooler climate and significant diurnal temperature variations, white varieties that come from cooler European regions, like Albariño (northwestern Spain), Viognier (northern Rhône Valley), Pinot Gris (northern Italy), some Muscat varieties, and even Riesling and Gewurztraminer (common in Germany and eastern France), are growing well in certain parts of the Texas High Plains.
The Other Texas AVAs
Texoma AVA was named after Lake Texoma which, along with Red River, forms a portion of the border between Texas and Oklahoma north of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Texoma was approved by TTB in 2006 as U.S. AVA number 185 of the current 261 (as of 09-Mar-2022). The AVA includes approximately 2.3 million acres or 3,650 sq miles, and parts or all of Cooke, Montague, Fannin, and Grayson counties.
The soil types are essentially silty loam and clay as expected in an alluvial plain along a major river basin. Elevation ranges from about 425 ft at the lake edge to about 1,320 ft southward at the rim of the river canyon. This elevation range provides some variation in soil type and temperature across the AVA. The climate is classified as humid, sub-tropical with reasonably temperate winters, warm to hot summers, and generally even rainfall over the seasons.
Diurnal temperature variations of 20-30oF are common over the AVA. Vine and bud damage from early spring frosts is a common risk in the AVA, so later budding varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre are less risky than earlier budding varieties like Merlot, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, and Chardonnay.
Many wineries in Texoma benefit from proximity to the major metropolitan areas located some 60-100 miles south along Interstate 20, and the cities along Interstate 35 and U.S. 75 heading north into Oklahoma. Visitors from Norman and Oklahoma City, OK, also frequent wineries in the area.
This rich agricultural region along the Red River is well-known for many native American grapevine species. This earned the area a nickname of “grape paradise” from ampelographer Thomas Volnay (T.V.) Munson who roamed the area extensively in the late 19th century. Munson was born in Texas, studied viticulture in Kentucky, and eventually settled in Texas near Denison in 1876. He established his own vineyard with many new grape varieties developed from his crossing experiments and maintained this vineyard not only as part of his lifelong research studies but also as a nursery business.
During the late 1800s, the phylloxera epidemic was devastating most of the vineyards in Europe. The phylloxera is an aphid or root louse that literally sucks the life from a vine by damaging tube-shaped xylem cells that normally transport water. The result is little or no sap, and nutrient flow can reach the upper portions of the plant from the damaged roots ultimately causing the vine to die. These phylloxera critters were native to the U.S. where vines had developed a basic immunity to them. However, when European explorers took American vines back to plant in their homelands, the phylloxera began to severely damage vines and destroy vineyards planted with Europe’s native Vitis vinifera species.
T.V. Munson, as part of his research efforts and while in communication with several European researchers studying the phylloxera epidemic, developed a workable solution to the problem by grafting Vitis vinifera budwood onto native American rootstocks, many of which were native to Texas. Munson’s efforts earned him an unprecedented honor, the Ordre du Merite Agricole from the French government, a title first awarded to Louis Pasteur for uncovering the secret of fermentation just five years earlier.
Today, most vines in Europe, the U.S., and many other parts of the world are grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks, many of which can trace their origins to the original Texas vines used by Munson. Some of Munson’s grape varieties are maintained in his original vineyard near Denison stewarded by the viticulture department at Grayson College. And to recognize exemplary contributions to Texas grape growing, the highest honor presented each year by the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association is the T.V. Munson Award.
Mesilla Valley AVA was approved by TTB in 1985 as AVA #100 of the current 261 (as of 09-Mar-2022) covering 280,000 acres or 438 sq miles. The AVA is located at the far western tip of the Texas border north and west of El Paso and is shared with, and mostly located in New Mexico. It runs along either side of the Rio Grande River and includes parts of Dona Ana County, NM, and El Paso County, TX.
Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate arrived in the area in 1598 and named a Native American village in the river valley Trenquel de la Mesilla, meaning “little table,” in reference to the small plateau on which the village sat. The name became synonymous with the valley – helping meet a stated requirement for the creation of an AVA title.
Viticulture began in nearby El Paso as early as 1650 to supply Catholic missions with sacramental wines. However, grapes were not planted in the Mesilla Valley until the early 20th Century near the town of Doña Ana, NM. The climate in the Mesilla Valley is dry and hot and grapes planted there tend to be drought resistant and can survive hot summer temperatures. Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Syrah are the most common grape varieties planted here. Some growers are beginning to experiment with more-exotic grape varieties such as Gewürztraminer and Tempranillo at higher elevations.
The Mesilla Valley AVA reaches up to 4,300 ft above sea level, providing significant contrast in the range of elevation resulting from the Organ Mountains to the west and the Rio Grande River to the east. This higher elevation results in significant diurnal temperature variation throughout the year. Since this AVA is classified as a classic continental climate, winter and spring temperatures fluctuate between 70-30oF while daytime summer temperatures range to 100oF or higher. Providing some heat relief during the growing season are breezes funneled along the Rio Grande valley to allow grapes to better retain natural acidity during the ripening process.
The Mesilla Valley is very dry, with an annual average precipitation of only 10 inches, the majority of which falls in the eastern Texas portion of the valley on the slopes of the Franklin Mountains. The landscape in Mesilla Valley was carved out by flooding in the Rio Grande, and soils in the area are typical of their alluvial origin: sand, loam, and clay, along with sedimentary deposits from the nearby mountain ranges. Overall, the soils have moderate depth and drain reasonably well.
Davis Mountains AVA was approved by TTB as #155 (of the current 261, as of 09-Mar-2022) at the close of 1999, the last AVA recognized in the 20th century. The AVA covers 270,000 acres or 422 sq miles and is located in Jeff Davis County in the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas. It has been described as a mountain island where the climate is cooler, slightly wetter, and more biologically diverse than the surrounding Chihuahuan desert. Vines can take advantage of cooler temps at higher elevations that range between 4,500 ft and 8,300 ft above sea level. Rainfall is limited, but with irrigation, some terrific quality grapes can be grown.
The Davis Mountains were formed during a monstrous tectonic and volcanic event that also formed the front range of the Rocky Mountains to the north. The porous soils offer excellent drainage and are composed of granitic, porphyritic, volcanic, and limestone materials.
Historically some marvelous wines, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon from a vineyard established by Gretchen Glasscock, were produced from grapes grown in Davis Mountain vineyards situated over a mile high. Because of the rugged, isolated nature of the area with few permanent residents and corresponding lack of an available vineyard labor pool, these early vines were ultimately abandoned. It is exciting that some new vineyard plantings are being established in the Davis Mountains. One example of that is Dan and Maura Brady Sharp, who in collaboration with Ben Calais, recently moved to the area and began to establish a Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard christened Vineyard at Blue Mountain (with reference to its predecessor and the surrounding landscape) which is expected to produce fruit that will provide a special taste of Texas wine.
The name Escondido Valley translates to “hidden” (escondido) valley and was approved by TTB in 1992 as AVA #141 (of 261 as of 09-Mar-2022). It is located near Ft. Stockton and includes 32,000 acres or 50 sq miles within Pecos County. The topography is unique as the valley floor is about 2,700 feet above sea level with nearby limestone-rich plateaus rising even higher. As expected for a shallow river valley, vineyard soils are mostly alluvial, composed of silty loam and clays that are very deep, well-drained, and moderately permeable. However, near the surrounding limestone mesas which dot the region, calcium-rich top-soils and more gravel are found.
As expected in this desert-like region, the climate is quite warm during the growing season, but due to the elevation and low humidity, there is large diurnal temperature variation that cools the vines at night. There is very little rainfall, so irrigation is required for successful viticulture. There is not a winery within the boundaries of Escondido Valley, but there was a major facility, Ste. Genevieve Winery, located in nearby Ft. Stockton used both AVA-grown and imported grapes to make wines.
The history of Ste. Genevieve Winery and Mesa Vineyards began with the planting of vineyards between 1981 and 1984 by an American-French partnership that involved the University of Texas System and University Lands Office. The French partner was a consortium of American and French investors called Gill-Richter-Cordier, Inc. The winery was built in 1984 by Cordier Estates (Bordeaux, France) and the winery and vineyard encompass about 1,300 acres. Nearly 1,000 acres of vines were originally planted, but just a few hundred acres of vines survive today. The revenue from this venture benefited both The University of Texas and Texas A&M University Systems.
In 2003, Pat Prendergast came to Ste. Genevieve. Pat had worked with Gallo’s international and European operations before moving to Texas. French winemaker, Along the way, Bénédicte Rhyne, now at Kuhlman Cellars in the Texas Hill Country, served as one of Ste. Genevieve’s winemakers (2003). In June 2005, the winery and vineyard were purchased by an investment group under the name of Mesa Vineyards. Many wines using both Texas and non-Texas grapes have been produced under various labels, including Lost Maples, 5 Point, Goody Goody, Escondido Valley, Big Star, L’Orval, as well as Ste. Genevieve and Mesa Vineyards. Higher-end wines like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir are sold under the Peregrine Hill label. Unfortunately, as of 2022, the properties are for sale under bankruptcy conditions and are currently not producing wines.
On the subject of Texas AVAs, many in the Texas Wine Industry believe that further developing the state’s interior appellations, those existing and those new ones to be developed, is very important. Even though one can purchase inexpensive California wine, inexpensive Napa Valley wines are rare, indeed. The same goes for finding inexpensive French wine, but Bordeaux appellation wines from France cost more. Similarly, growing the recognition of Texas AVAs and more specific vineyard locations should lead to the more successful marketing of higher quality wines from the Lone Star State.
Alcohol and Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), Code of Federal Regulations – 27 CFR part 9.
https://www.ttb.gov/wine/ava-map-explorer is loaded with fun info, including the boundary descriptions of all approved 261 U.S. AVAs (as of 09-Mar-2022)
The Wine Searcher website has info on most U.S. wine regions, including the Texas AVAs (for example, Escondido Valley, Texas – USA Wine Region | Wine-Searcher)
Wikipedia,com offers a significant amount of info for Texas wines in general, for the individual AVAs, and a very good discussion of Thomas Volnay Munson.
https://VintageTexas.com/blog/archives/3100 Vintage Texas Sunday ‘Cyclopedia of Wine: Appellation of Origin/American Viticultural Area, 23-Jan-2011
Appellation America – An Introduction to the Texas AVAs, by Eleanor & Ray Heald, December 1, 2009
Just FYI – The largest AVA in the U.S. is the Upper Mississippi River Valley which encompasses portions of several states north of where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi River, spreading over 29 million acres, over three times larger than either the Texas Hill Country or the Texas High Plains AVAs.