Bumper Wine Grape Crop in Texas

Gulf Coast 95% finished and most reds ready for picking, 2018 could be the state's largest

by Linda Jones McKee
Excellent growing conditions and little rain have growers in Texas excited about a bumper crop, especially for white grapes such as Blanc du Bois seen here.

College Station, Texas—After a second warm winter in a row (2017-18 was the “hottest on record”) and earlier than normal tornados and hail in late March, Texas enjoyed a grape growing season that was quite nice, with no “untimely” rains or other widespread problems, said Justin Scheiner, assistant professor and extension viticulture specialist in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Texas A&M University.

Fran Pontasch, viticultural program specialist for the Gulf Coast region of Texas, told Wines & Vines that growers in that region harvested a “bumper crop,” especially for white grapes such as Blanc du Bois. “The clusters were larger than normal, with nearly complete berry set, and large full berries,” Pontasch said. “This equated to heavier grapes, more grapes per cluster, plus more clusters per vine. LOTS more.”

She noted that, on average, Blanc du Bois will yield 6 to 10 pounds of grapes per vine, with an average cluster weighing 2.5 to 4 ounces. This year, clusters weighed 3.5 to 5 ounces per cluster, and some weighed 6 to 8 ounces. “At that rate,” she said, “an historical average weight of 6 to 10 pounds per vine suddenly jumped to 20 to 30 pounds per vine.” The highest yielding vine she recorded was at 50.66 pounds.

Pontasch also said red grapes such as Black Spanish (Lenoir) are having a fine year with a good harvest. However, the yield of those grapes is “not defying expectations” the way that the white grapes have, in spite of the fact that the red varieties are grown in the same climate and the same terroir as the whites.

Fritz Westover, a viticulture consultant who owns Westover Vineyard Advising and the Virtual Viticulture Academy (based in Houston), also reported on Texas’ bumper crop of white grapes, “We had good fruit set, and timely rains that increased the berry size.”

He said the Hill Country region between Austin and Fredericksburg and the North Texas region saw two weeks of hot and dry weather, with temperatures rising to 104° F and 105° F for about a week. “I’ve seen some berry shrivel, but not a huge amount as growers don’t leaf pull heavily,” he said.

The High Plains region of Texas is picking white grapes, and the reds are now above 20° Brix, so they are “hot on the heels of the whites,” Westover said.

The region has had no rain for nine months, and even though some vineyards haven’t sprayed at all this season, he has seen no disease. “Other crops, like cotton, are hurting,” Westover noted, “but growers can save on labor this year. For example, no one has hedged. It’s been a very good year.”

Scheiner also said the hot temperatures two to three weeks ago accelerated and compacted the ripening of the white and red grapes. Growers have relied heavily on irrigation, and the crop load in the High Plains and North Texas is sizeable, even though conditions have been very dry.

Messina Hof Cellars, located in Bryan is now about 25% through harvest, according to Paul Bonarrigo, the winery’s owner and winemaker. So far 300 tons have been harvested, and he expects to process a total of 1,100 tons. The drought is making ripening happen faster and, he said, “the quality is incredible. There’s a nice balance of Brix and acid.”

He noted that he prefers to to pick Muscat Canelli between 22° and 23° Brix and at 3 to 3.2 pH, and the grapes are very close to those numbers this year. The winery plans to harvest Merlot today, Aug. 8 with a Brix of 25.8° and a pH of 3.7, which Bonarrigo says is “perfect.”

Bonarrigo summarized the Texas harvest as being “excellent, exceptional” in quality, and noted that it will probably be the highest tonnage that Texas has ever produced.

Ed Hellman, professor of viticulture and Enology at Texas Tech University's campus in Fredericksburg, said the harvest across Texas is earlier this year because of the heat and the drought. However, he is less certain that yields overall will be much more than normal. “That remains to be seen,” he said. “Last year there was a bit of overproduction. But there is more new acreage producing this year. Will that new production balance out the lower yield from smaller berry size?”

Hellman said the grapes are “clean as can be,” with no disease, and small berries can be a good thing, especially for the quality of red wines. Tempranillo is just starting to be harvested in the High Plains, and he reports that the color on those grapes “is awesome!”

According to Wines Vines Analytics, Texas currently has 324 wineries producing 1.9 million cases per year. The state's grape and wine industry has a $13.1 billion economic according to an economic impact report from WineAmerica in 2017.

What is much less certain is the exact number of vineyard acres in the state. Hellman said counting wineries has always been easier than vineyard acres, but he added growner Andy Timmons, who owns one of the larger vineyards in the High Plains AVA, reported last year that 5,000 acres were harvested in that appellation alone. Based on that, Hellman said he believes Texas now has between 8,000 and 9,000 acres in total. 



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