When you explore wineries in Texas, you will be pleasantly surprised by the quality, expression, and diversity. At the same time, you will discover the maverick winery owners and passionate winemakers who embrace the Texas wine scene.
Texas is the fifth-largest producer of wine in the United States and, like its neighbor New Mexico, one of the oldest wine-growing states in our country. Today Texas is home to more than 400 wineries and the Lone Star State has more than 5,000 acres under vines. For wine lovers who enjoy exploring wines throughout the United States, you must not miss out on learning and discovering the wines of Texas. You will be pleasantly surprised by the quality, expression, and diversity. At the same time, you will discover the maverick winery owners and passionate winemakers who embrace the Texas wine scene.
Note: Featured photo is Spicewood Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country. Photo © Spicewood Vineyards
History of Texas Wine
History tells us that New Mexico was the first to plant Vitis Vinifera in 1629. Some think that Texas was the second place because both areas were under the same rule. The monks who established the missions traveled in both regions.
Early Texas Wine History—Pre-1800s
It was not until 1744 that a Franciscan Monk wrote about vineyards in Texas. Soon after, wine was produced in El Paso. It was called Pass Wine and planted in an area east of El Paso where the native Mustang grape was propagated.
Around this time, there were two areas where Italian immigrants planted grapes. One was in Loredo, close to the Mexican border. The other was located in south Texas near Del Rio.
Texas Wine History in the 1880s
The first known winery, Val Verde Winery, was established in 1883. Now in its fourth generation, the winery produces hybrids, including the Black Spanish grape, which produces portlike wines.
In the late 1880s, Texas horticulturist Thomas Volney Munson was the foremost expert on American native grapes. His fame came during the Phylloxera outbreak in Europe, where he provided the rootstocks that were resilient to phylloxera. His rootstocks are still used today.
Texas Wine in the 1950s and Beyond
In the 1950s, J. H. Dunn experimented by planting a vineyard in the high plains near Lubbock, Texas. The modern history of Texas wine began in the 1960s and 1970s. Two projects from Texas A & M University played an impact on Texas grape growing. The first was in 1973 when George Ray McEachern received a grant to plant trial vineyards throughout Texas utilizing 12 grape varieties. He selected 30 test plots and planted each with three American varietals, three hybrids, three Vitis Vinifera, and three varieties of the grower's choice.
Around the same time, another researcher from the university, Ron Perry, performed soils and climate studies. Also, during this time, Roy Mitchell, a Texas Tech Chemistry professor, started a winemaking program. These studies represent the beginning of the Texas wine industry in the High Plains near Lubbock.
Two other researchers from Texas Tech influenced the beginning of the Texas wine industry: Ron Reed and Clinton “Doc” McPherson. McPherson was the first to plant Sangiovese. McPherson established the Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock, which is today considered one of the oldest and largest wineries in the state.
Other early pioneers include Ed and Susan Auler. The Aulers planted their Fall Creek Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country with Bordeaux varieties based on their mentor Andre Tchelistcheff. Soon after, Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo tested the waters in Bryan.
Caliche Soil in Texas
A common thread throughout the Southwest is the Caliche soil, a whitish-gray soil consisting of cement-like material known as Calcium carbonate. The soil is composed of sedimentary rock, which binds with other materials such as clay, gravel, sand, and silt. Caliche thrives in arid and semiarid regions like the Southwest. The Chihuahuan, Mojave, and Sonoran Deserts are known for this type of soil. The term caliche is Spanish and comes from the Latin word calx, which means lime.
Caliche layers appear in calcareous soils with high pH. These types of soils often are limited in phosphorus, iron, boron, zinc, and manganese. Knowing this, viticulturists in Texas take extra precautions to add nutrients during the growing season.
Texas Wine Grapes
Originally Bordeaux varieties were planted in Texas except where Doc McPherson planted Sangiovese. Cabernet Sauvignon is the widest planted grape, but many producers are moving to Portuguese, Rhône, Spanish and Italian varieties.
Starting in the 1990s, Tempranillo became more popular to plant. Viognier was also planted at that time. Today you will see Aglianico, Mourvédre, Tannat, Touriga Nacional Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Cinsault in the reds. In whites you can find Roussanne, Vermentino, Albariño, and Picpoul Blanc.
At this time, Texas is not defined by a particular grape. Over 70% of the vines planted produce red grapes, and just under 30 percent are white varieties.
Texas Wine AVAs
Texas consists of eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Two of the Texas AVAs are quite large, and the bulk of wine production is within those two AVAs. They are the Texas Hill Country and the Texas High Plains.
Texas Hill Country AVA
The Texas Hill Country AVA is the third-largest AVA in the United States and the largest in Texas. This region lies on the Edwards Plateau, an area consisting of primarily limestone bedrock. It is in Central Texas, northwest of San Antonio and west of Austin.
The northern portion of the Hill Country includes the Llano Uplift, an area with igneous and metamorphic rock and granite. The region is known for its rolling hills, steep canyons, and vistas. Elevations range from 425 to 2100 feet.
Texas High Plains AVA
Located 400 miles north of the Hill Country in an area known as “the Panhandle,” the Texas High Plains is the second largest AVA in Texas.
The region is arid, desolate, and mostly flat. The Texas High Plains AVA has a more significant amount of vineyard plantings and has become the primary source of grapes in Texas by producing 60% of Texas' wine grape production. Here the elevations are 3000 to 5000 feet. The Llano Estacado, a high mesa, lies within this AVA. The soils are deep with sandy and clay loam as well as Caliche.
Other Texas AVAs
The state of Texas does have several other AVAs, although these are much smaller. The other Texas Wine AVAs are:
- Mesilla Valley AVA, considered the oldest in the state, crosses the border into New Mexico.
- Bell Mountian AVA became the first AVA located exclusively within Texas in 1986. The AVA is located in Gillespie County, west of Austin, within the Texas Hill Country AVA along the south and southwestern slopes of Bell Mountain.
- The Escondido Valley AVA lies in west Texas near Fort Stockton.
- Texas Davis Mountains AVA is also in west Texas, but near the Mexican border. The elevations for this AVA range from 4500 to 8300 feet, making them the highest wine-growing region.
- Texoma AVA is known for its history of European viticulture and sits near the Texas and Oklahoma border.
For this article, I will be mostly talking about wineries located in the Texas Hill Country. I will share the passion of both the winery owner and the winemakers as they strive to put Texas on the wine map.
Bending Branch Winery prides itself on its red wines. During my first encounter with this winery, I sampled a Tempranillo. I was impressed. After hearing many accolades about the Bending Branch Tannat, I was anxious to try this one. I can promise, this wine is one of the best Tannats I have sampled in the United States. I found the 2017 Tannat smooth and integrated, delivering flavors of plum accented with tobacco and leather.
Bending Branch's owners Robert Young MD and his wife Brenda, along with daughter Alison, like to combine old-world winemaking with modern science. Young calls his wine “Next World Wines.”
Young utilizes a unique process that makes the winery stand out. He combines whole-berry or carbonic maceration in addition to Cryo-Maceration and Thermoflash fermentation. Cryo-Maceration is a process that promotes slow-forming ice crystals as the grape freezes to weaken the cellular structures, thereby containing tannin, pigment, and flavor. Thermoflash, known in Europe as “flash Dénte” or flash release, reduces the time of red grape fermentation, thus improving the quality of the wine. These processes make the Bending Branch wines bold yet balanced.
Dr. Pat and Trellise Brennan founded Brennan Vineyards in 2001 on one of the oldest remaining homesteads in Texas near the historic town of Comanche. Their tasting room welcomes you into the historic McCrary House, built in 1879 by James Madison McCrary and his wife Ella. McCrary owned the local general store and cotton gin and was a volunteer for the Minute Men Rangers.
One grape variety you don't expect to see in Texas is Semillon. The Brennan's pay tribute to the McCrary house through Ella's Pine wine composed of 100% Semillon. The story behind this wine is that Ella McCrary carried a seedling pine from Alabama to Texas as a child. She planted this Loblolly Pine on the south side of the McCrary house, where it still stands today and represents a link between the past and the present, the old world and the new.
The Semillon is an old-world grape crafted as a new world wine with wonderful aromas of stone fruit, florals, and lime. The wine delivers bright and vibrant acidity with citrus flavors.
Duchman Family Winery
Drs. Lisa and Stan Duchman started their Texas Hill Country winery in 2004 with the vision to bring old-world winemaking to Central Texas and the Texas Hills Country. This goal included utilizing Italian varieties such as Vermentino and Sangiovese. They developed one of the more picturesque wineries in the area.
Duchman Family Winery sources grapes from three vineyards in the Texas High Plains and one in the Texas Hill Country.
Winemaker Dave Reilly decided on a whim in 2000 to plant a vineyard in the Texas Hill Country while he worked in construction. He became hooked and worked his way from cellar rat to winemaker under Duchman winemaker Mark Penna. In 2008, Reilly became Duchman's winemaker. Since then, he strives to create wines that represent the essence of the single varieties Duchman produces.
After tasting the wines, I can attest that Reilly achieves his goals, especially with Montepulciano, one of Duchman's most popular wines. I found a bright wine that exhibited itself as pure and elegant. Duchman's Aglianico also displayed similar qualities. Both the Vermentino, Trebbiano, and Viognier showcase bright acidity.
Other Noteworthy Texas Wines
I recently sampled some award-winning Texas wine offered by Uncork Texas Wines, a program organized through the Texas Department of Agriculture called Toasting to Texas' Best. Many featured wineries won awards at the Texas Vintners Cup 2021 or the Texas Lone Star International Wine Competition.
Here are some wines worthy of mention. Please note I sampled many of these wines over a two or three-day span. I was impressed with how they developed over the days.
- Kerrville Hills Winery 2017 Tannat
- Lost Draw Cellars 2019 Sangiovese
- Texas Heritage Vineyard 2017 Alicante Bouschet
- Wedding Oak Winery 2019 Roussanne
- Vinovium 2016 Sketch, a blend of Tempranillo, Alicante Bouschet and Petite Sirah
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About Texas Wine
Although Texas sells most of its wine within the state, it is well worth discovering the wines for those living outside of the state, especially if you are a red wine lover. If I were to name a few grapes that define Texas wine, I would pick both Tannat and Tempranillo. Be sure to check out Wander for more great wines we love and some wineries you can discover Around the World or Across the Street™. We also have some great ideas for what you can do during a visit to Texas.