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HomeTravelPlaying in the Dirt: Texas Terroir

Playing in the Dirt: Texas Terroir

In a state known for its cowboys, cotton fields and free roaming cattle, grape growing (or winegrowing) is frequently overlooked as a cornerstone of Texas agriculture.  Now the fifth largest producer of wine and grapes in the US, Texas viticulture is a two billion dollar industry. Texas wines are telling the triumphant success story of their journey from dirt to bottle.

What is ‘Terroir’?

One simple fact can be agreed upon by winemakers and grape growers alike; you cannot make great wine with bad fruit.  The French term ‘terroir’ is as much of a concept as a singular expression.  When translated it means earth, or soil, but in the wine world refers to the ‘specificity of place’ or ‘taste of a place’.  Terroir is the total sum of a vineyard’s components including (but not limited to) climate, weather, soil, geography, geology, water accessibility and conditional variations.  Any factor that is impacting the environment around you becomes a part of your unique terroir.

A large part of Texas terroir is climate. Climate is a planning factor for the long term when choosing what grapes to plant at what locations, or an average of the temperature and weather occurrences in every year. The climate of Texas resembles inland Mediterranean regions. Many of the grapes that thrive in these regions do well in the Texas terroir.

However, the weather in any given year can dictate the quality of that vintage despite what you may have planned. In Texas we suffer from drought, extreme heat, hail and late spring freezes. All of these effect how a vine survives to grow and produce grapes. The wine from those grapes can be greatly impacted by a number of weather, climate and terroir factors.

The Vine Cycle

Choosing the grapes that will thrive in our terroir is critical to producing quality wines.  Vines enter a cycle of dormancy, or sleep, during cold winter months and begin to ‘wake up’ with the onset of spring.  The first stage of the wakening begins with the emergence of tiny shoots called ‘buds’ which are sensitive to extreme temperature.  This ‘bud break’ period is a vulnerable time for the vine and can be crucial to the success or failure of that year’s harvest.  It is a common occurrence for both the Texas High Plains (west) and the Texas Hill Country (central) AVA’s to experience a spring freeze in March-April which can harm the vine’s buds and diminish hopes of a full fruit harvest.  Texas viticulturists are perpetually seeking vines that have the tendency for ‘late bud break’ that will resist an early wake-up call and emerge slightly later in hopes of missing the freeze hazard.

Shoots that survive strengthen and produce leaves which allow the plant to undergo photosynthesis.   Tiny flowers begin to bloom forty to eighty days after bud break, awaiting fertilization to become the foundation for grapes.  Vines are self-pollinating so warm, dry weather allows the wind to blow pollen across the vineyard transitioning the flowers into berries, a process called ‘fruit set or berry set’.

The berries mature from small hard beads to small berries that are firm, high in acid, low in sugar and have a dull green color to the skin.  The berries enter their most critical point in physiological maturity, ‘Veraison’, and accelerate towards ripeness.  During Veraison red grapes begin to transition from green to purple and white grapes adopt a golden hue.

While the grapes ripen, the sugar level (Brix) rises while the acidity is steadily falling.  The extreme heat and combination of hot day/hot night in the Texas climate can be tricky to navigate if the grapes fall out of ‘balance’ with too little acidity. The lift and movement of a wine across the palate is best served by the acidic structure.  Grapes that lack acidity produce wines that lack acidity and are perceived as flawed or ‘flabby’.

When to see the show?

Harvest occurs roughly a month and a half to two months after Veraison and the timing can vary wildly from one grape variety to another in terms of readiness.  There are few images more romantic than a bountiful vineyard at sunset, a view that has inspired lovers and poets alike.  Each vintage is a canvas painted with the most vibrant colors provided by nature. You can witness this spectacular process while visiting the wine country in your backyard: The Texas Hill Country.  While ‘cabin fever’ is slowly becoming a rare Texas reality, take a drive out to your local vineyard and see the sites.

We are not yet open and are taking every measure to reopen our business in the safest way for our employees and guests, but urge you to pick up a bottle or two through our ‘no contact’ curbside service and drive through the budding vines!

As the director of operations and branding, sommelier and educator at Slate Mill Wine Collective, Jennifer guides the day-to-day business of the tasting room and wine club. She is one of less than 500 wine professionals in the world to be awarded the title of Certified Wine Educators by the Society of Wine Educators in 2019 and holds a level 2 Certified Sommelier title with the Court of Master Sommeliers. She writes a bi-monthly wine column for Edible San Antonio and fervently supports local charity organization as a member of the Dames d’ Escoffier and San Antonio Chef Cooperative.