Texan Wine Could Benefit from a Freeze

Winemakers discuss Tempranillo, cryomaceration, low yields and state wine style at annual conference

by Andrew Adams
At Bingham Family Vineyards in the Texas High Plains AVA near Lubbock, Texas, clusters grow on a Tempranillo vine. The Spanish variety was the focus of the recent Newsom Grape Day. 

Plains, Texas—As a former doctor turned winemaker, Bob Young says he prefers to trust the numbers when evaluating new winemaking equipment or techniques.

So when he discovered a few studies testing the effectiveness of freezing must to trigger more extraction during red wine fermentation, he was intrigued enough to experiment with the process called “cryomaceration.” At the recent Newsom Grape Day conference (see more photos at Facebook.com/winesandvines) at Newsom Vineyards in the heart of the Texas High Plains AVA, Young described his success with freezing.

In addition to Young’s presentation, the event that has grown to be one of Texas’ largest industry gatherings also included a specific focus on Tempranillo, a Spanish variety that appears to have great potential in the Lone Star State.

Ice crystals as fermentation tool
Using commercial cold storage facilities near his grape sources in the High Plains and his Bending Branch Winery near Comfort, Texas, Young said he froze destemmed grape must in half-ton bins at 1°F and 8°-10°F for between three weeks and 23 weeks. He said it takes between two and seven days for the grapes to freeze solid. A long freezing period could be more beneficial, Young said, because it forms more ice crystals that break apart the grapes’ cell structure, releasing tannins and the “sticky” anthocyanins into solution.

After a thaw period of about four to seven days, the cryomacerated grapes underwent fermentation compared to control lots. The must fermented in half-ton bins with punch downs three times per day.

Generally the cryomaceration process pulled more total tannins, anthocyanins and pigment from the grapes. A trial between 2012 Tempranillo lots fermented with cryomaceration vs. regular fermentation found the frozen lots had 14% more tannin and 31% more total pigment.

Freezing estate Malbec fruit in a 2012 trial extracted 131% more tannin, while a saignée resulted in 24% more tannin. A trial on Cabernet Sauvignon fruit from Newsom Vineyards resulted in cryomaceration extracting 78% more tannin and 68% more total pigment than regular fermentation.  “Since doing this in 2009, I’m a firm believer in this cryomaceration,” he said.

Hauling grapes to a freezer actually makes harvest logistics easier because it can extend the winemaking timeline and free up the crush pad and winery for other fruit, Young said. The resulting wines also remain balanced and aren’t just tannin bombs. If there’s a drawback, it’s that the cryomacerated wines can have slightly diminished aromatics, he said.

Flash coming to Texas
In his research on better extraction, Young also grew interested in the process of flash détente. Based on his research, widespread use in Europe and growing popularity, Young said he was convinced the system can be used to make better wine. Bending Branch purchased a Della Toffola unit that Young said would be installed at the winery this June.

There are currently three flash détente units operating in California, making Bending Branch’s flash system the fourth in the United States. Young said he strongly believes cryomaceration and flash represent a “quantum leap” in winemaking for Texas wines.

Tempranillo’s potential
The future of winemaking in Texas also appears closely linked to the Tempranillo grape. In a twist of ironic history, growers in the Republic of Texas are looking to central Spain for inspiration and guidance for their state’s fast-growing wine and grape industry.

Newsom Grape Day started nearly 30 years ago as a casual gathering of about a dozen growers at a ranch owned by Neal Newsom’s mother for a discussion about wine grape growing followed by a barbecued brisket lunch.

Today it’s still a gathering of growers and a brisket lunch, but the event held May 9 drew nearly 300 growers, winemakers and suppliers and required about all the folding chairs in Texas’ sparsely populated Yoakum County, according to Newsom’s son Nolan Newsom, who helped set up for the event.

Dr. Ed Hellman, viticulture professor at Texas Tech University and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, started the day with a comparison between the wine regions of Spain and Texas. He prefaced his remarks by noting that Tempranillo in general is becoming widely popular, and the Spanish are pulling a large number of Airen grapevines (a widely planted white wine grape variety) and replacing them with Tempranillo.

Based on planting statistics from the EuroStat Database and a University of Adelaide study, Hellman said Tempranillo was the most widely planted grape in the world from 2000 to 2010, outpacing Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. In 2010 it was the fourth most-planted variety in the world at 574,671 acres, with 513,181 of those acres in Spain. “It’s hard to fathom half a million acres of one variety in a country that’s smaller than Texas,” Hellman said.

There are 884 total acres of Tempranillo in California that yield 11,750 tons of grapes, according to state agricultural reports. About 25% of those Tempranillo acres are located in the Central Valley counties of Fresno and Tulare (high yields there likely drive up average yield). Texas’ total wine grape vineyard acreage is currently estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000 acres of all varieties, leaving plenty of room for growth. Most of the state’s new, large vineyard plantings are going in the High Plains, where growers are switching from cotton, peanuts and other commodity crops to wine grapes that use less water and provide better returns.

According to the Wines Vines Analytics winery database, Texas is home to 205 wineries, and about half of those are producing between 1,000 and 4,999 cases.

A 2011 study determined the economic impact of the Texas wine and grape industry was $1.83 billion, with about $440 million of that coming from wine-related tourism. The study also found the state’s wineries produced 1.4 million cases, with a retail value of $142 million and grape sales accounting for $7 million.

Looking to Spain
Hellman said the central Spanish regions of Extremadura and Castile-La Mancha are the most similar to the High Plains in terms of elevation, growing degree-days and precipitation—or rather lack of rainfall. Western Texas is suffering through the third year of a drought of historic proportions that is placing  an enormous strain on the area’s groundwater supply but also hastening the decision of cotton farmers to switch to wine grapes. A brief rain shower at a reception held prior to the grape day event elicited an old farmers’ joke: “We had a good 6-inch rainstorm yesterday. The rain drops were a good 6 inches apart from each other.”

While Spain can provide some guidance about cultivation practices, vineyard development and winemaking, Hellman also stressed that Texas can’t simply copy how it’s done there. “I think it’s a big mistake to totally emulate another wine region of the world,” he said. “We’re not making Spanish Tempranillo, we’re making Texas Tempranillo.”

Yet the state’s style is still very much open to debate. Jim Johnson, who worked with Joe Heitz at Heitz Wine Cellars in the early ’90s before coming to Texas and founding Alamosa Wine Cellars in San Saba, Texas, said the state’s wineries should be focusing on making the best possible wines rather than trying to create a state style. “I think that’s the best a consumer can hope for,” he said. “I think each winery is best served by making its best style and sticking with it.”

Dan Gatlin, winemaker and founder of Inwood Estates Vineyards readily admits to often holding contrarian views about winemaking and grape growing in the state. He criticized what he sees as winemaking geared toward early release and competitive honors. “We’re all under so much pressure to release a wine and win a medal, which in my mind is completely idiotic,” he said.

Gatlin also is a firm believer in reducing vine yield to achieve grape quality. He said drastically cutting crop load has helped him grow grapes in the warmer Hill Country area in the center of the state that he believes have quality equaling the best of the High Plains. “If I told you what my target yields are you’d die,” he told the audience comprised largely of growers. “They’re low. They’re painfully low.”

He said in his Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards near Austin, Texas, he sees “really great” quality at 2 tons. 


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