Amid shortages, new grower contracts, and experimental varieties, Texas vintners hail the 2021 vintage as excellent.
Texas vintners experienced a vintage filled with unexpectedly harsh weather patterns in 2021. Though harvest is only now winding down, vintners are reporting a significant decrease in grape yields.
In February, the state experienced a polar vortex, plunging several regions into below freezing temperatures for almost two weeks—the first mass freeze event in 150 years.
“We hit single-digit temperatures in the Hill Country and below zero temperatures in the High Plains … weather conditions we’re not really accustomed to from a viticultural perspective,” says Brad Buckelew, winemaker for Lost Draw Cellar, adding that, after the freeze, there was “nasty hail” in early May that hit his and a handful of other vineyards.
Across Texas, Winter Storm Uri caused agriculture losses of $600 million, with repercussions expected to last for years to come, the Farm Bureau reports. In between Uri and the hail, vintners also experienced freak wind and rain storms, and unseasonably cool weather.
This all comes as Texas—the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the country, creating a $13.1 billion economic impact annually—is growing substantially in terms of size and reputation. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, bearing acres devoted to grapes increased by 120 last year, for a total of 5,140 acres, up from 4,541 in 2017, an increase of 11.65 percent. There are more than 500 wineries in Texas now, according to the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association, and about 340 growers. The steady uptick in both new grape farmers and vintners across the state (there are eight officially approved AVAs, but vineyards are planted everywhere grapes can be grown) means more grapes on the market, but also more buyers.
Most winemakers in Texas source grapes from across the state. This is a key mitigation technique given what vintners dub the “growing challenges” the state’s been experiencing.
“When I saw what was happening in February, I got on the phone immediately,” says Bending Branch Winery founder Robert W. Young, M.D. “It’s not like we have a smorgasbord of incredibly high-quality producing vineyards here, so it was more of a question of just looking for fruit.”
But he was pleasantly surprised when the fruit from seven new growers, primarily located in the High Plains, arrived. “The chemistry is excellent, and the fruit quality is great,” Dr. Young says, adding that he plans to work with many of them in the future. “I’m particularly excited about the Picpoul Blanc, Tannat and Petit Manseng we have, a new grape for us and Texas.”
And because Dr. Young hustled, he says 2021 was their “biggest harvest ever,” with an expected 25,000 cases production. At Pedernales Cellars where their entire estate is being replanted due to virus issues, co-founder Julie Kuhlken, PhD, says that “a lot of last-minute horse trading” between fellow Hill Country growers and newly onboarded High Plains growers, means their 2021 harvest will hold steady.
Amid shortages, new grower contracts, and experimentations with new varieties, the quality of the grapes is hailed as excellent.
“The unseasonably cool weather this summer saved us,” Ron Yates, owner and president of Spicewood Vineyards said. “[We were] able to let things ride in the vineyard for longer than usual.”
The hodgepodge of new growers and last-minute deals saved this harvest, but what about next year?
“We all support each other, but this year, harvest got extremely competitive,” Yates said. “I got calls from growers telling me they were getting offers for the grapes I’d agreed to buy for a lot more than I’d agree to pay. Bottom line, we need more grapes to choose from here.”
Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox