Texas vintners overcome weather challenge
Vineyardists use technology to overcome hostile conditions.
However cosmopolitan we may consider ourselves, I suspect at the end of the day we are frogs in a well. Okay, maybe a pond. True, the size of the pond may differ, but our perspectives are shaped by our surroundings.
All to say that although California has many AVAs, each with its own flavors, everything extracted here from a wine grape is California wine. And, of course, it is the best. Didn’t the Tasting of Paris prove that in 1976?
So it came as a surprise when at a Jose Andrés restaurant in Washington, D.C. on a cold January day, I saw some Texas wines. Wines from Texas?! Beef, yes. Armadillo racing, Texan toast, but wine! This is a state that experiences rain, sleet, high temperatures in the course of a few hours. These are not ideal conditions for wine grapes, which are more genteel in their growing preferences. They favor a slow, long growing period, shut off when the temperatures get too hot for their delicate sensibilities, and reveal their flavors only over a period of time. In other words, they are stiff-upper-lip grapes. Some research was in order.
Although there were four varietals on the wine list, all came from a single winery. http://www.mcphersoncellars.com The primary tasting room is in Lubbock in the High Plains AVA, just south of the panhandle and bordering New Mexico. McPherson Cellars owns vineyards in Lubbock and Brownfield, a town roughly 40 miles to the southwest. The other tasting room is in the Hill Country AVA, which surrounds the capital, Austin.
These are two of eight AVAs in Texas, with the High Plains responsible for 85 percent of the wine grapes grown. In the High Plains, more mesa than hills, the climate is hot and dry. Summer temperatures reach 100 to 110 degrees during the day, but the evenings can be cool with temperatures ranging from 40 to 50 Fahrenheit.
But in an example of using ingenuity to overcome Mother Nature’s decrees, the folks at McPherson have found ways to grow numerous varietals. Technology has offered the means to do that. Vineyard fans control temperatures on the vine, explained Thomas Turman, director of hospitality and events at the winery.
After rains or an icy spell, these fans blow water and ice away from the plants. Drip irrigation makes the hot, dry weather bearable for the grapevines by providing water to the root and soil. Vineyards are irrigated throughout the growing season.
That seems to be par for the course. Climate aside, the key is to determine what grows well, said Turman. Chenin blanc, picpoul blanc, and mourvedre thrive here; tempranillo and sangiovese need babying, but do well. Carignane and viognier also grow well.
Sugar and acid.
As I have said many times in these posts, high temperatures lead to more sugar and lower acid in the grapes and consequently, a jammy, sweet wine. I asked about the effect of heat on these levels. To circumvent the problem of the grapes shutting down, vineyardists choose the harvest time that meets their Brix requirements, Turman said. This translates to a brix of 21 or 22, which produces alcohol of 11 to 12 percent. As for the acid in white wines, they add tartaric acid, which is found naturally in grapes.
As you can probably tell, much research has gone into the growing of wine grapes in these somewhat hostile climes. The patriarch, “Doc” McPherson was a chemistry professor at Texas Tech University, where he started making wine in the basement of the chemistry lab. That launched the viticulture program at Texas Tech specifically and in Texas more generally. Today research on hybridization and grafting is also done at the University of Texas at Austin. And the family business is run by Kim McPherson, Doc’s son, who paid his dues in California wineries before returning home.
As for me, I remained in my pond, letting slip the opportunity to order a glass of Texas wine. There will be a next time.
Another piece that appeared in Wine Country this Month. Enjoy, plan a trip, or just have fun flipping the electronic pages.
Photo credit: Kaylee Ann.