Napa Valley has nothing on Texas when it comes to wine heritage — and visitors today can appreciate the results of Texas’ grape-growing and wine-making ventures in nearly every corner of the state.
But while visitors may enjoy wine tastings, grape stompings and vineyard tours, they may not realize how historic viticulture is in Texas.
The first vineyard in North America was planted by Spanish missionaries in what is now Texas, along the Rio Grande near present-day El Paso, in 1682. Grapevines, vineyards and winemaking have been a part of the state’s culture — even during Prohibition — ever since.
Vines in the Valley
The state’s oldest winery resulted from a movement, soon after the Civil War, to develop land along the Rio Grande for agriculture. Among the Italian immigrants drawn by the prospect of abundant irrigated acreage was Francesco Quaglia, who brought with him the family tradition of winemaking and, most important, discovered Lenoir grapes already under cultivation on the property. Anglicizing his name, new Texan Frank Qualia set down roots and established the Val Verde Winery near Del Rio in 1883.
This year Val Verde celebrates its 135th year of continuous winemaking. The family-owned business, the oldest bonded winery in Texas, was awarded the Land Heritage Award from the Department of Agriculture for single-family ownership of the vineyards for more than 100 years.
Today the winery is operated by third-generation vintner Thomas Qualia and his son, Michael. Many of their wines have gained the attention of connoisseurs, particularly his Don Luis Tawny Port, which has won medals from Texas to New York.
Visitors to the Rio Grande Valley may take part in a tour and tasting six days a week and sample for themselves.
Viticulture in Northern Texas
While Qualia was creating a culture of winemaking in the Valley, in the northern part of the state Thomas Volney Munson, often referred to simply as T.V. Munson, a horticulturist and breeder of grapes, was exploring the viticulture potential of grape breeding. Born in 1843, Munson made extensive use of native American grape species, and devoted a great deal of his life to collecting and documenting them. He released hundreds of named cultivars, but his work identifying American native grapes (especially those from Texas) is of great significance today for their use in rootstock. Though breeding for wine quality seems to have occupied a great proportion of his effort, his work on rootstock development had the greatest impact on viticulture.
Munson’s work — particularly with phylloxera, a disease previously thought to be unstoppable — provided European grape growers with phylloxera-resistant rootstocks, allowing them to recover from a devastating epidemic of the late 19th century while still growing the ancient Vitis vinifera cultivars. These rootstocks are still used worldwide. In honor of this work, the French government named him Chevalier du Mérite Agricole of the French Legion of Honor, and Cognac, France, became a sister city to Munson’s home of Denison, Texas.
The West Campus of Grayson County College in Denison preserves much of Munson’s work. In 1974, the T.V. Munson Memorial Vineyard was established, which maintains many of his cultivars and produces stock for propagation. This was followed in 1988 with the opening of the T.V. Munson Viticulture and Enology Center, which serves as a repository for documents and other historical materials regarding Munson. It also houses research, classroom and conference facilities. The grapes that Munson recommended for rootstocks for phylloxera resistance in both Europe and California are still used worldwide.
The sports arena at Denison High School is named Munson Stadium.
Surviving the “dry” years
Texas’s viticulture industry had become firmly established when, in 1919, the nation’s Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, making alcohol prohibition the law of the land. Vintners such as Val Verde, along with winemaking operations that had sprung up in places like the Hill Country and North Texas, suffered. Frank Qualia continued to tend his vines and survived Prohibition by selling table grapes and grapes for home winemaking. Although some of Val Verde’s vines were lost, most of them survived and became the nucleus for the expanded vineyard and winemaking operation that began soon after Prohibition’s repeal. While some wines were produced in Texas after Prohibition, eventually all wineries but Val Verde had ceased to exist by the late 1950s.
A West Texas wine renaissance
The modern, post-Prohibition Texas wine industry was led by Clinton “Doc” McPherson, then a chemistry professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, who traveled to wine regions across the U.S. in the 1960s to research both Vitis vinifera and hybrid grape varieties. Along with his business partner Bob Reed, McPherson plant an experimental vineyard in 1966 in the Texas High Plains comprising 140 different grape varieties to see which grapes worked best in the local climate and soil. It wasn’t the most popular international grapes that thrived best but the more obscure varieties: grenache, ruby cabernet, tempranillo, muscat, chenin blanc and even virua vines smuggled into the country from Spain.
However, when McPherson and Reed founded Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock several years later, in 1976, many of these original vines were ripped out of the vineyard in favor of more recognizable varieties. It’s taken a generation of wine-making for High Plains vineyard owners to continue to diversify their grape varieties to capitalize on local climate and soil.
Winemaking in the Texas Hill Country and elsewhere
Following in the time-honored tradition of German winemakers in the rich agricultural areas around Fredericksburg, new vineyards and wineries soon sprang up. Ed Ahler of Fall Creek Winery established vineyards in the Texas Hill Country soon after McPherson and Reed founded Llano Estacado Winery in the High Plains; Richard Becker of Becker Vineyards put the viognier grape on the Texas map; and the proprietors of Messina Hof pioneered winemaking in East Texas
It wasn’t until 2005, however, that real growth occurred in the industry, largely thanks to the state passing its direct shipping bill, allowing Texas wineries to ship their products directly to consumers both in and out of state. Since then, the number of bonded wineries has risen from 40 to more than 400, and there’s been a recent charge led by small, experimental producers to plant new grapes and use only Texas fruit for Texas wines
Touring Texas’ wine country
Today Texas has more than 4,000 acres of vineyards covering eight established American Viticultural Areas — or AVAs. (The geographic pedigrees of American wines are denoted by Appellation of Origin, which are defined either by political boundaries, such as the name of a county, state or country, or by federally recognized American Viticultural Areas.)
While the climates of all Texas wine-making regions aren’t the same — the state is roughly the same size as the country of France, after all — there are a few general climactic similarities. Texas generally has a warm continental climate, similar to many regions of Portugal, Spain, central Italy and the Rhône Valley. But despite what anyone who’s experienced a summer day in Dallas or Houston might think, heat is not the state’s biggest climactic challenge. The biggest issues are spring frost, hail and lack of water. This is why many recognizable grapes, such as merlot, pinot noir and chardonnay, are less suited to Texas winemaking, as they bud early and therefore could be decimated by frost.
As hardy and disease-resistant grape varieties have been studied and cultivated in Texas, the wine business has expanded in many parts of the state.
Texas’ wine regions’ AVAs
TEXAS HIGH PLAINS – The second largest AVA in Texas, the Texas High Plains, covers 8 million acres in the state’s Panhandle around Lubbock. As the name implies, the region is located west of the elevation line that separates the high plains from the lower plains, and the elevation of the vineyards rises from 3,000 to 4,100 feet.
Even though 80 percent of Texas’ wine grapes come from the High Plains, that doesn’t mean you’ll find a bounty of wineries in the area. What you’ll find is many family farms that once raised cotton, soybeans or sorghum now growing grapes — although you’ll find a cluster of wineries in Lubbock and Amarillo and in far-flung locations across the Panhandle from Canyon to Brownfield (which has been designated by the state legislature as the Grape Capital of Texas, and holds a popular festival each August).
TEXAS HILL COUNTRY – With 9 million acres, the Texas Hill Country is the largest AVA in Texas and the second largest in the country after the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA. Located just northwest of Austin and San Antonio, its landscape is comprised largely of low, rolling hills and steep canyons, with the highest elevations — maxing out at about 2,100 feet — located in central and western Texas. Drought is relatively less of a problem in the Hill Country, with the region receiving 24 to 28 inches of rainfall a year, and humidity is increased because of the region’s proximity to the warm Gulf of Mexico.
The state’s most robust wine trail area, the Hill Country is home to more than 50 award-winning wineries, with food and wine festivals throughout the year. Special seasonal events for the region include wildflower events in the spring, wedding celebrations in the summer, harvest grape stompings in the fall and tasting and pairing occasions year-round.
BELL MOUNTAIN – Texas’s first AVA, created in 1986, is a small region located within the large Texas Hill Country, with about 50 square acres planted north of Fredericksburg. Perhaps the best-known wine destination in this AVA/Wine Trail is the aptly named Bell Mountain Winery, at 463 Bell Mountain Rd. in Fredericksburg. Its first vines were planted in 1976, making it Fredericksburg’s oldest winery.
FREDERICKSBURG IN THE TEXAS HILL COUNTRY – A sub-region of the Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg is known for chardonnay, chenin blanc, merlot, and pinot noir grapes. Here, the Fredericksburg Wine Road 290 trail (WR290) features 15 or so award-winning wineries along a 45-mile stretch of US Highway 290 from Johnson City to Fredericksburg.
ESCONDIDO VALLEY – Escondido Valley is a small, lower-lying valley in West Texas, located just west of the Hill Country and south of the High Plains. One winery that makes Escondido Valley AVA designated wines is Ste. Genevieve Wines, whose facilities are 27 miles outside of Fort Stockton. Given the remote location of the winery, Ste. Genevieve Wines has its tasting room in Fort Stockon’s historic Grey Mule Saloon at 101 E. Callaghan St. The saloon, built in the 1880s to serve Texas Rangers, cowboys passing through the area and U.S. Army troops who provided protection for the settlers and for the San Antonio-El Paso road, today offers wine tastings and sales of wine and accoutrements, as well as insights into the vineyard, wine grape growing and winemaking.
TEXAS DAVIS MOUNTAINS – Located in Far West Texas, the Texas Davis Mountains AVA sees the benefit of a 4,500-to-8,300-foot elevation, making it cooler and wetter than other parts of Texas. The region is known for its cabernet sauvignon grapes.
An AVA approved in 1998 in the Trans-Pecos region of west Texas south-west of Fort Stockton contains approximately 270,000 acres spread out north and northwest of Fort Davis, the “highest town in Texas.”
There are currently no wineries in this region; the closest tasting room is in Fort Stockton, 90 minutes away.
TEXOMA – Though Texoma AVA is technically Texas’ youngest AVA (it was formally established in 2005), it actually played an essential role in the history of the world’s viticulture: it was here that viticulturist Thomas V. Munson first grafted Vitis vinifera onto American rootstocks in order to prevent phylloxera.
It’s located in the northern part of the state along the Oklahoma border and the Red River, extending into East Texas, and despite its being a more challenging vine growing area, winemakers here are showing promise with merlot, tempranillo, and syrah.
There are six wineries in the Texoma AVA, and one winery with the most active events calendars for visitors is Enoch’s Stomp, founded by Altus Koegelenberg, a fifth-generation grape grower from South Africa, and Jon Kral, a chemist, in 2004. Located at 871 Ferguson Rd. in Harleton, the winery has a restaurant, live music every Friday and Saturday night, and tours and tastings.
MESILLA VALLEY – The Mesilla Valley AVA is located primarily in New Mexico, with a small area in Texas.
The shared AVA between the states, Mesilla Valley, is producing cabernet sauvignon, syrah and zinfandel. The wines are usually consumed locally and rarely found outside the region. There are two wineries in this AVA, both located in New Mexico.