Black Spanish Grapes – Update Aug-2019
Black Spanish grapes are common to southern states that tend to have hot growing seasons with higher humidity. Here in Texas, Black Spanish has been planted extensively from the Hill Country eastward to the Louisiana border, and southward to the Gulf of Mexico. The grape, also known as Lenoir and Jacquez, is relatively hardy and disease resistant, making it popular in areas where more traditional vinifera grapes are difficult to grow. This is the grape variety growing in the small 4.0 Cellars Vineyard, that will soon be harvested and used to produce a Portejas.
I recently discovered a 2016 post by Dr. Jerry Rodrigues (PhD Biochemistry), currently of South Africa, that sheds more light on the origins of Black Spanish. Dr. Rodrigues is a native of Portugal and reports that the grape was grown by his ancestors on the island of Madeira. He also reports DNA evidence to suggest that this hardy hybrid grape variety was “naturally generated from hybridization events involving the Vitis vinifera cultivar, Cabernet Franc, with a ‘wild’ Vitis aestivalis grapevine species that took place at some point in early colonial America (around the middle of the 18th century).” This fits with other reports that Black Spanish was created (most likely) in Georgia (the state) where a vine with native origins was bred with an undetermined vinifera variety sometime in the mid-1700’s. Cabernet Franc is a relatively cold-hardy vinifera grape of European origin that probably survived reasonably well in early America.
The grape produces medium-to-large, relatively loose clusters of blackish-colored grapes. The interior flesh of the grape is also pigmented, a reddish color, which helps make the wine produced quite deep and dark in color. This is an unusual property since most red wine grapes have color only in their skins, not the flesh. The vines tend to grow upright, making them easy to manage with the most common trellising system called vertical shoot positioning (VPS). The grapevine can be quite vigorous, and usually needs significant maintenance in order to limit yields to a reasonable level of four-to-six tons per acre.
A key value for Black Spanish grapes is their natural resistance to Pierce’s Disease (PD), a significant problem in Texas (and all across the South). Pierce’s Disease is almost always fatal to a grapevine as bacteria infects the vine disrupting the water transport system. The bacteria, xylella fastidiosa, is introduced to grapevines via sap-sucking insects. The group of insects known as sharpshooters are the most prevalent culprits. And, these insects tend to proliferate in more humid climates, and in areas where natural water sources exist. By the way, PD can also infect peach orchards, citrus plants, oleander bushes and olive trees. Research at UC-Davis has shown that Black Spanish is not immune to PD, but rather can tolerate a lot more of the PD bacteria than most other grapevines. It is usually recommended to keep plantings of Black Spanish, which can carry high concentrations of the PD bacteria, well-separated from other varieties to help prevent cross-contamination.
Fungal diseases are another common problem for grapevines. With relatively loose grape clusters, Black Spanish can be more resistant to some fungal diseases. However, the vines are susceptible to downy mildew, a very common problem in Texas, black rot and summer bunch rot. Planting Black Spanish on well-drained soil, and in an area with ample wind, can help minimize fungal disease pressure due to humidity and moisture. Wider spacing between rows and vines (8-10 ft by 5-6 ft) can also help moderate mildew issues by allowing moisture to dry more quickly.
Because of its native American heritage, Black Spanish is quite resistant to phylloxera, the root louse that devastated European vineyards in the late 1800’s, and caused significant damage to California vineyards in the 1970’s-80’s. Because of this resistance, a lot of Black Spanish, usually known a Jacquez or Jacquet, was planted in parts of France as hybrid varieties were used to help the wine industry recover from phylloxera. Today there are very few of these vines remaining as European Union rules forbid the use of hybrids in commercially marketed wines.
Another property of Black Spanish is the ability to hold more natural acidity at common ripeness levels of 22-25 deg Brix (sugar content) under the hot climate conditions here in Texas and across the South. Under the proper conditions, Black Spanish grapes can be made into decent quality dry red wines. However, most vintners tend to use Black Spanish as minor components in red blends with vinifera grapes, in softer-styled rose’ wines, and in sweet wines, especially ports (often called Protejas in Texas).
In our hot climate, Black Spanish or Lenoir or Jacquez grapes have become a small, yet important part of the Texas Wine Industry. Many folks who want to participate as grape growers would be severely handicapped without such hybrids. Winemakers have learned how to use Black Spanish in a number of creative ways to produce or enhance wines that have become popular in tasting rooms across the southeastern part of the Lone Star State. If you encounter a wine produced with Black Spanish grapes, go ahead and try it – you may be pleasantly surprised.
The information provided above has been adapted from several reliable published sources. The following sources were particularly helpful.
“Black Spanish, A taste of the South” by Chik Brenneman, WINEMAKER, June-July 2017,p 19-22
News Flash: Black Spanish is Cabernet Franc x Vitis Aestivalis, a post on Vintage Texas – Texas Thru & Thru, 20-May-2016