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How Low Yields Are Spurring Texas Winemakers’ Creativity

“Towards the beginning of the year, we were extremely optimistic,” says Akhil Reddy, CEO of Reddy Vineyards in the Texas High Plains American Viticultural Area (AVA), of 2022. “But it’s been another roller coaster.”

Eighty-five percent of Texas wine grapes are grown in the state’s High Plains AVA. However, 2022’s harvest presented multiple challenges, including relentless heat, drought, high winds and other cumulative environmental factors, to name a few. For many growers, yields are down—and for some it’s as much as 60%.

Reddy Family - Akhil Reddy, Subada Reddy, and Dr. Vijay Reddy
Images Courtesy of Reddy Vineyards

Reddy explains that when yields are low, costs aren’t covered, which means it’s difficult to turn a profit. For smaller vineyards, economic consequences can be significant. “Even with insurance, it’s more to get you to break even,” says Reddy.

But wine producers are choosing to focus on the grapes they did manage to harvest. And Randy Hester, owner and winemaker of C.L. Butaud Wines in Austin, predicts the bottles to come from the 2022 harvest will be “hedonistically pleasurable.”

Here’s a look at some of the many factors that impacted Texas’ grapes and how winemakers are getting creative with what they have.

Relentless Heat and Drought

In mid-June and July, average temperatures in Lubbock in the Texas High Plains exceeded 100°F for more than thirty days, reports the National Weather Service, topping a record dating from 1940 for July. The National Weather Service describes Texas as “at the epicenter of the heat for July 2022,” while other regions in the South and West also saw “some of their warmest/hottest Julys.”

The initial June heat wave shocked the vines, explains Nikhila Narra Davis, co-owner of Narra Vineyards in the High Plains and Kalasi Cellars in Fredericksburg. As high temperatures persisted, vines concentrated their energy on supporting the existing crop load, instead of pushing out new growth.

Additionally, a majority of locations off of the Caprock escarpment, which separates the High Plains from lower elevation areas to the east, received less than two inches of rain. This prolonged a drought that began in October of 2021, says Dr. Ed Hellman, professor of Viticulture and Enology at Texas Tech University in Fredericksburg. Reddy explains that dehydration had a particular impact on the volume of later bud breakers for grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Montepulciano, which are typically harvested in late September.

Vines also require moisture during winter dormancy. If root volume is depleted during winter due to lack of water, explains Dr. Hellman, vines can dry out, and that can delay bud break in the spring, which can lead to unpredictable ripening times later.

“We already focus on keeping yields low,” says Narra Davis, adding that with a few exceptions, she and co-owner Greg Davis typically try to cap at three tons per acre, dropping fruit prior to veraison to lower yields and improve flavor concentration. “But the drought made it to where it was rare that an acre produced more than one ton.”

The Dicamba Drift

Another critical factor impacting High Plains grapes is dicamba, an herbicide spray used by cotton producers.

Cotton is Texas’ largest crop, and the largest production area is in the High Plains. As reported in Texas Monthly, a 2016 iteration of dicamba promised to reduce the chemical’s ability to disperse, or volatize, in the air. However, dicamba drift is still causing stunted canopies, weakened vines and the death of younger vines, says Narra Davis.

According to Chris Brundrett, co-founder of William Chris Wine Co. in the Texas Hill Country AVA, dicamba weakens grapevines’ vascular systems.

Harvest Problems Beyond the High Plains

Yields in other parts of the state correlate with the diminished numbers in the High Plains. In North Texas, winemaker Chris McIntosh grows Albariño, Grenache and Tempranillo on the estate at Edge of the Lake Vineyard and Winery. In 2022, scant moisture and extreme heat led to variable ripening times, and McIntosh harvested six different times, twice for each varietal, depending on the age of the block.

“This has never happened before. We’ve always been able to ripen everything evenly,” says McIntosh.

The Fort Davis AVA in far west Texas is roughly a mile high, more than 1,000 feet higher than the Texas High Plains. Adam White, a grape grower and winemaker at Château Wright in Fort Davis, echoes Dr. Hellman’s concerns about irrigation during winter, noting yields have decreased by as much as 50% in 2022.

Exceptional Grapes Born Out of Difficult Circumstances

Dan and Maura Sharp checking on newly planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines at the couple’s mountainside vineyard
Image Courtesy of Manda Levy

Despite reduced yields, winemakers are poised for creative expansion as the grapes they were able to harvest are exceptional.

“Quality has been phenomenal because of small berry size, higher concentration and surprisingly mature seeds,” says Roxanne Myers, president of Lost Oak Winery and past president of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association.

“We have full phenolic ripening at lower Brix’s unmatched in my nine harvests in Texas. It’s exactly what we look for from a winemaking standpoint,” says Hester.

Ron Yates of C.L. Butaud Wines
Randy Hester of C.L. Butaud Wines predicts the bottles to come from the 2022 harvest will be “hedonistically pleasurable.” / Image Courtesy of C.L. Butaud Wines

“’The harvest was small, but great quality’ feels like a cliché,” says Maura Sharp, co-owner of Sharp Family Vineyards in Fort Davis.  “But what we did get was tannic, bright on sugar and maintained acidity beautifully, owing to our elevation… The skins are thick, berries are deep and rich in color.”

Ron Yates, co-owner and president of Ron Yates Wines and Spicewood Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country AVA, echos this sentiment, calling it “a tale of two harvests,” as “later-picked lots will produce some of the best wines we’ve ever made.”

Dan Gatlin, owner of Inwood Estates Vineyards in Fredericksburg, describes 2022’s Tempranillo as “outrageous,” having come in at .25 tons per acre.

“What there is of 2022 will be of a very high quality, with really high concentrations of flavor. The flip side is we’d love to have more of it,” says Gatlin.

New Challenges Mean New Rewards

Unlike previous years, sparkling wines and European-style field blends will have more prominence than usual in 2022’s vintages, according to Jason Centanni, winemaker of Llano Estacado Winery in the Texas High Plains. And Centanni is not alone.

For the first time ever, Hester is also making sparkling Grenache with grapes from Desert Willow Vineyard, where he typically sources Grenache and Mourvèdre for single-vineyard bottlings.

Both Hester and Yates note that keeping grapes on the vine for as long as possible to push for ripeness did not compromise acidity levels. Following a similar lead as Hester, Lood Kotze, winemaker for Reddy Vineyards, closely monitored ripening and harvest dates to ensure desirable acidity for the winery’s first estate sparkling wines using Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, both picked in the first days of harvest. Kotze notes that both are traditional Champagne varieties and so work well for this style.

William Chris is working on a sparkling Blanc Du Bois, and its forthcoming Uplift series will lean into Italian varieties like Aglianico, Sangiovese and Montepulciano—varieties that proved hardy in 2022.

Wineries are also taking new approaches to flagship bottles.

At Edge of the Lake, McIntosh harvested Grenache from three different sections of his estate vineyard, as extreme heat caused ripening to occur at different times. So, in addition to a flagship estate Grenache, it’ll be producing a brand-new wine called Youngblood, from younger vines. Younger Grenache will also offer McIntosh’s rosé more color and structure. 

For Yates, blending trials will include Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

While this past year has been particularly difficult, Texas winemakers are accustomed to facing challenges.

“People in the industry want to raise the bar to make the best wines they can,” says Dr. Hellman. “And they spur each other on.”