Header image: Grapes Await Harvest at Lost Oak Winery in Burleson
by Andrew Chalk, Senior Writer, Texas Wine and Trail
The grapes are picked. The wine is being made, and it is time to assess the 2013 vintage in Texas. Our preliminary report surveyed growers and found that success in 2013 depended crucially on whether your vineyards were in the Texas High Plains (the area around Lubbock, and where about 80% of the state’s wine grape acreage is to be found). The High Plains were hit by late freezes that reduced the crop by 75% versus normal output. Elsewhere, the losses due to frost were much less and the quality excellent.
Five months later a more complete picture emerges. I asked the same questions that I asked in July to all the state’s wineries. Here is a representative sample of responses.
1. What quality rating do you give the 2013 vintage?
Near unanimity on this one. The quality is good to excellent. Karen Johnson of Alamosa Wine Cellars and Gary Gilstrap of Texas Hills Vineyard both reported “excellent.” Gene Estes of Lost Oak Winery said “A” to “A +” Pat Brennan of Brennan Vineyards said 95%.
Those more in the “good” category were Pierre de Wet of Kiepersol Estates Winery who said “Mixed by variety, but I will still give it an overall strong 7. Maybe the mildest season in 15 years with the most challenges at harvest time.” Mark Hyman of LLano Estacado Winery found similar variability “Given the extreme atmospheric conditions of spring, the vintage quality was better than expected, in some varieties excellent.” Mike McHenry of Wedding Oak Winery gave it “8 on a 10 scale” and Bill Bledsoe of Texas Legato Winery referred to it as “very good.”
In the negative category was Benjamin Calais of Calais Winery who gets all his fruit from the High Plains. “First, it wasn’t much of a vintage, barely any fruit out there, second it was all secondary/tertiary buds which make for uneven ripening.”
Perhaps the winemaker who learned the most from this one year was Sergio Cuadra, the Chilean-born winemaker at Fall Creek Vineyards who was making his first vintage in Texas after 20 years in Chile. He noted “Overall I think it as an excellent vintage. I have seen amazing wines even from vineyards where there is still some room for improvement, as they recover from past heavy frosts damage.” He elaborated on his baptism of fire “There were very healthy grapes, not one issue, which always help to see the vineyard’s potential, as well. But there is something worth noting about rating a vintage here in the “new world.” In my opinion, asking for the vintage quality, besides the healthy threads that are normally related to a region, is very close to asking for the irrigation strategy. In fact, vintages vary in Europe widely because different rainfall patterns among them, and even though it also rains here during the growing season it is not nearly enough for plant survival, so extra watering is needed. Hence, the irrigation practice is one of the most important tools to define quality, for the good or the bad.
Sorry to extend myself here but when I got off the plane in August I thought it was just too hot to even grow vines here and they tell me that last year it was even worse. Taking that, the wines I have tasted and my experience in cooler climates my only possible conclusion is that temperature is far less important than plant water intake.
As a result, using irrigation we can “mimic” a perfect year, giving just enough water to plants in the right moment. We only need to define what we understand by perfect year! Not an easy task.”
2. How does the quality of the vintage rate relative to other years?
Here it is clearly not the best ever, but it most respondents rated it better than average.
Karen Johnson, Alamosa Wine Cellars: Equal to 2011 better than 2012;
Pat Brennan, Brennan Vineyards: As good as 2012 and these were the best since 2006;
Benjamin Calais, Calais Winery: Below average, see above reasons;
Sergio Cuadra, Fall Creek Vineyards: In our case, I think we have had a better year than last year, but I can’t tell you anything else beyond that;
Pierre de Wet, Kiepersol Estate: Not the best we ever had. But in certain aspects, much more workable in the winery than some years;
Mark Hyman, LLano Estacado Winery: Our results were mixed due to atmospheric conditions, on the Texas High Plains 2013 does not lend itself well to comparisons with past vintages;
Gene Estes, Lost Oak Winery: Our estate vineyards 2013 vintage quality rating is higher than 2012 and although it is still a little early to predict, I believe it will be as good as our 2011 which was our best quality year ever – although low yields. The majority of our wine grapes come from the high plains and we got zero this year due to devastating spring frosts thus I am not aware of the quality of whatever grapes were harvested.
Gary Gilstrap, Texas Hills Winery: One of the best
Bill Bledsoe, Texas Legato Winery: Better than some vintages
Mike McHenry, Wedding Oak Winery: Above average
3. How does the size of the vintage compare with other vintages?
Size was the other issue on which there was near unanimity. If you depended on the High Plains, it was very small. Elsewhere it was more mixed. There were three camps. The most negative saw large decreases in grape output:
Pat Brennan, Brennan Vineyards: Pathetic. The worst in our 12 year history;
Sergio Cuadra, Fall Creek Vineyards: Very poor;
Mark Hyman, LLano Estacado Winery: As a result of late spring frost our growers on the Texas High Plains and Far West Texas experienced very low grape production;
Bill Bledsoe, Texas Legato Winery: Smallest we have harvested;
Benjamin Calais, Calais Winery: 1 barrel …;
The middle tier was those who saw some shortfall but not a disaster:
Gene Estes, Lost Oak Winery: The size of our 2013 vintage of red varietals was about 55% of 2012 and about 80% of 2011. Whites came in at about 35 to 40% of normal due to spring frosts;
Gary Gilstrap, Texas Hills Winery: From our vineyard, one of the best. No grapes from High Plains, we are all Texas so we ended up with only about 40% of volume;
Mike McHenry, Wedding Oak Winery: 30% on whites; 50-60% on reds;
The third group was those who either did not suffer or saw gains in grape quantity:
Pierre de Wet, Kiepersol Estate: We were 25% down from the 2012 crop per vine age equivalent. But we were fortunate enough to make more grapes than we could process and sold some of the younger blocks;
Karen Johnson, Alamosa Wine Cellars: Bigger (quantity) than last 3.
4. Which grape types did best? Which did worst?
The results here are very producer-specific so I will just list responses:
Karen Johnson, Alamosa Wine Cellars: Graciano, Tempranillo, were best. All good;
Pat Brennan, Brennan Vineyards: We lost all of the early breakers including almost all of our whites and some of the reds. All varieties were affected by the freezes;
Benjamin Calais, Calais Winery: Best: Roussanne -> 1 barrel;
Worst: Everything else -> Nothing
Sergio Cuadra, Fall Creek Vineyards: Cabernet and Merlot and Syrah did the best. Sangiovese did the worse, but this was related to the poor quantity. This way, plants get out of balance and not good quality can come from that;
Pierre de Wet, Kiepersol Estate: Amazingly, Cab Franc, Mourvedre, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot came through with phenomenal color and clean crisp varietal distinguishable flavors. Not as high sugar content as we would like to get and most capped out at 21-22 brix. The big losers this year were Zinfandel and Pinot Grigio.- most of that we had to harvest on a timeline that was not of our choice. Most of that will end up in our vodka program. Disappointing was the yield in the Muscat di Alexandria – we were even under final estimate and that very seldom happens. But they were concentrated in flavors – just not enough for our demand;
Mark Hyman, LLano Estacado Winery: Our Montepulciano was in low production but made excellent quality wine, Tempranillo was disappointing because none was harvested;
Gene Estes, Lost Oak Winery: Our estate Tempranillo did best while our Blanc du Bois and Malvasia Bianca did worst. My understanding of the High Plains AVA is that only the very latest varietals such as Cabernet Franc, and Malbec along with Mourvedre were harvested and still at record low yields;
Gary Gilstrap, Texas Hills Winery: Chenin Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon;
Bill Bledsoe, Texas Legato Winery: Best: Malbec. Worst: Merlot & Petite Sirah;
Mike McHenry, Wedding Oak Winery: Best = Sangiovese, Cinsault, Syrah, Rousanne;
Worst = Viognier, Grenache, Mourvedre
5. What was your biggest problem during the year?
Frost dominated among the group that responded. However, check out Bill Bledsoe’s answer below.
Karen Johnson, Alamosa Wine Cellars: None this year;
Pat Brennan, Brennan Vineyards: Spring hard freeze;
Benjamin Calais, Calais Winery: 24 degrees May 3rd;
Sergio Cuadra, Fall Creek Vineyards: Poor quantity, by far;
Pierre de Wet, Kiepersol Estate: Our biggest problem was early cold weather in a couple of blocks. That took the primary buds and we had to depend on secondary buds to compensate for the loss. Then an unheard of, unseasonal three days of rain during verasion;
Mark Hyman, LLano Estacado Winery: On the Texas High Plains and in Far West Texas late spring frost events led to very low grape production;
Gene Estes, Lost Oak Winery: The biggest problem during the year – multiple late spring frosts;
Gary Gilstrap, Texas Hills Winery: Had a late frost, but did not appear to affect anything except Syrah;
Bill Bledsoe, Texas Legato Winery: Deer;
Mike McHenry, Wedding Oak Winery: Late frost, freezes.
6. What most excites you about the vintage?
This question gave the respondees open season to say how they felt about the vintage.
Karen Johnson, Alamosa Wine Cellars: Excellent quality fruit in quantities that rival any recent year. 4 tons of Graciano off 1/2 acre;
Pat Brennan, Brennan Vineyards: Very good quality in what we got;
Benjamin Calais, Calais Winery: Just tasted through 2012 barrels and we have some great stuff in barrels;
Sergio Cuadra, Fall Creek Vineyards: Well, to me, everything. But one thing I didn’t expect was the good quality Merlot we had;
Pierre de Wet, Kiepersol Estate: Most exciting about this vintage is the phenomenal color in the reds – deep red to almost purple. And the Ruby Cab looked like ink. Acid levels stayed up due to the milder mid-summer temperatures. We are truly blessed in a year when so many of our fellow Texas growers lost all or a huge portion of their crops;
Mark Hyman, LLano Estacado Winery: As mentioned earlier there were a couple varieties that surprised us with excellent quality for example – Montepulciano, Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc and Gewurztraminer. Due to the low productivity of our vineyards in 2013 there is not a lot to get excited about, although thru it all the promise of what Texas can do keeps us all going;
Gene Estes, Lost Oak Winery: Most exciting aspect about our 2013 wines is the intensity, color, and lower than normal pH due mostly to longer than normal growing season;
Gary Gilstrap, Texas Hills Winery: Having grapes, many Texas Wineries did not have much of a harvest;
Bill Bledsoe, Texas Legato Winery: Intense fruit flavors;
Mike McHenry, Wedding Oak Winery: Red blends;
And Maria Ramos, San Martino Winery gave what may be the Texas version of the ‘gallic shrug’ when she said in response to all the questions “There was no harvest to speak of in 2013”.