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Blog of Bell Springs Winery
As part of the general growth of the wine industry in the United States, the wine production of Texas has been steadily growing. Texas is ranked in the top five states for wine production. Despite this growing success, the wine industry in Texas does face some basic issues, such as grape selection. Unlike many other states, Texas is large enough that its distinct regions vary to the point of being quite incompatible in terms of grapevine selection for vineyards. Depending on the area of the state, temperature, weather, and other climatic and geographic factors can vary considerably. Thus, the question becomes, are there any universal varieties being implemented by the Texas wine industry?
In order to understand the current trends in grapevine selection in Texas, some historical context is important. Wine production in Texas dates back to Spanish missionaries of the seventeenth century. Seemingly, Texas was meant for grapevines. Fifteen members of the Vitis family of grapevines are native to Texas, and many more have been introduced. The wine industry in Texas did well for more than two hundred and fifty years. Then, the advent of prohibition in the United States stunted the wine industry in Texas. Even decades after prohibition, a quarter of the counties in Texas are still dry. Following prohibition, the wine industry stayed dormant in Texas until the seventies, at which point further development began. Therefore, the Texas wine industry, in addition to great variability in climate and geography, is also attempting to suit the tastes of the wine community, while still recovering from decades of neglect and several devastating winter freezes.
As far as particular grapevines, there's little unity amongst Texan vineyards. The state is simply too large for a one size fits all solution. There are several factors that effect decisions regarding grapevine selection. For the most part, vinifera varieties are used. However, vinifera grapevines don't fair well in two specific areas of the state. The high plains, at an elevation of between three and four thousand feet, can have quite cold nights. For some vinifera varieties, which do not go dormant during the winter, such lows can be too low. But, other varieties respond reasonably well to the cool nights. However, the high plains offer a trade-off of sorts. Those grapevines that do tolerate the cold well are protected by the constant wind throughout the region, which usually keeps fungi, especially powdery mildew, from affecting the grapevines. The South and East of the state are another area that presents problems for the cultivation of vinifera varieties. Pierce's Disease is, unfortunately, a constant threat in this region. Therefore, those varieties with a notable resistance to Pierce's Disease are preferable, especially now as Pierce's Disease has crept further North following the turn of the millennium. However, there is a confounding factor with Pierce's Disease. The South and East of Texas, especially the northern area of this region, is comparatively humid. This humidity is intolerable to many vinifera varieties. As a result, disease resistant vinifera varieties can be grown in some of the region. But native varieties, such as Muscadine (a variety of Vitis rotundifolia, not a hybrid) are often used in the areas that are too humid for vinifera varieties.
As for individuals who are shaping the grapevine selection in Texas, there are few. The University of Texas system once had a large research vineyard, which has since been leased. More importantly, Dr. Jim Kamas as been devoting research towards combating Pierce's Disease. The preliminary results of his work look promising. Overall, there isn't an oligarchy of professionals who are influencing the grapevine selection in Texas. Rather, there are certain constraints imposed by the climate and factors such as Pierce's Disease which render some varieties superior to other, depending on context. Instead, vinifera varieties are preferred in Texas for one primary reason. We, as a public, have been conditioned by Europe and California to prefer wine from vinifera grapevines. Such varieties are what most consumers think of when they think "wine". Therefore, Texan vineyards are simply pining after the consumers in their predominant use of vinifera grapevines. There are plenty of native, as well as hybrid, varieties that would thrive just as well. But, in the end, we as a public, regardless of the logistics of its production, have a discerning taste for vinifera varieties.