Texas AVA's- Where Most Texas Grapes are Grown
This Carl’s Corner post is focused on the Texas High Plains where most of the wine grapes in Texas are grown (approximately two-thirds or more!). This huge AVA was approved by TTB in 1993 as U.S. AVA number 144 of the current 261 (as of 09-Mar-2022). The records exist in the Code of Federal Regulations - CFR 27 9.144.
There are eight U.S. American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the state of Texas as shown in Figure 1: Bell Mountain AVA #55; Mesilla Vly AVA #100; Fredericksburg in the THC AVA #125; Texas Hill Country AVA #136; Escondido Vly AVA #141; Texas High Plains AVA #144; Davis Mountains AVA #155; and Texoma AVA #185.
The Texas High Plains is the second largest TX AVA (third largest in U.S.). It is centered around the Lubbock-Brownfield-Plains area, from the Caprock escarpment all the way west to New Mexico. The AVA contains approximately 8 million acres or 12,500 sq miles and includes parts or all of 24 counties. Currently about 5,000 acres of vineyards are in production, but more acreage is being planted each year.
This southern part of the Texas Panhandle is well-known for agriculture, mostly cotton, grain, and soybeans. Many cotton farmers have established vineyards as a valuable alternative cash crop, one that uses significantly less irrigation water, their most valuable resource. So long as ample irrigation water is available, this area has a distinct viticultural advantage due to the vine-friendly sandy loam soils, and relatively high elevation that allows for warm days and cool nights in which grape vines thrive. Higher elevations also mean more intense direct sunlight, allowing more efficient photosynthesis as grapes ripen with thicker skins that can lead to more color, flavor, and tannins in the wines. Early spring frosts can be a critical issue in this area, and research is focused on identifying and developing late-budding varieties and clones to minimize the danger of freeze damage.
A significant number of THP AVA vineyards are scattered along U.S. Hwy 380, commonly called the “Grape Route of Texas,” running from Tahoka westward through Brownfield and Plains to the NM border. Most vineyards are on relatively flat terrain at elevations between 3,000-4,000 ft above sea level. Because these Texas plains can be extremely dry, most vineyards require irrigation with water from the important Ogallala Aquifer that runs from the Dakotas all the way south to Texas - a key feature for the AVA petition.
The following is a summary of the boundary description provided in the AVA petition to the TTB. From the TX-NM border east of Hobbs, NM, follow US-180 eastward through Seminole to Lamesa where one intersects the 3,000-ft contour line of the Caprock Escarpment. The eastern boundary follows the 3,000-ft contour line in a generally northeasterly direction passing through portions of Borden, Garza (west of Post), Crosby, corner of Dickens and Motley (Matador), into Briscoe (Quitaque, Silverton), and the sw corner of Armstrong counties to intersect TX-217 east of Canyon. From TX-217, proceed west to intersect US-60 and follow US-60 southwesterly through Hereford to intersect the TX-NM border at Farwell, TX, near Clovis, NM. The western border is then the TX-NM borderline south to the beginning point, the intersection with US-180 east of Hobbs, NM.
The Caprock Escarpment is a steep transitional zone that separates the western High Plains from lower eastern plains. Parts or all of 24 Texas counties are included in the AVA, with Hockley (Levelland), Terry (Brownfield), Yoakum (Plains), and Gaines (Seminole, Seagraves) being the primary counties where vineyards have been established.
In the 1950s, Dr. W.W. Yocum, a professor of horticulture at Texas Tech University, planted grapevines in research plots on campus. A decade later, during construction and expansion of the university, Professors Bob Reed, horticulture, and Clinton “Doc” McPherson, chemistry, saved some of the growing vines and planted them in their Lubbock gardens. They found that the grapevines adapted well to the High Plains environment and expanded the plantings. The Texas Agricultural Experiment Station funded further research in 1968. Eight years later, after experimenting with fermentation in a chemistry lab at Texas Tech and receiving more grant money, McPherson, Reed, and partners founded Llano Estacado Winery, the first winery in West Texas to go into production after Prohibition. It is the second oldest winery in the state, after Val Verde Winery in Del Rio, which opened in 1883 and maintained continuous operation throughout Prohibition by providing grapes to family winemakers and sacramental wines to the Catholic church.
In 1992, McPherson compiled 112 pages on the climate, geology, and history of viticulture in the area to accompany the TTB application for the Texas High Plains AVA. Today about 75 grape varieties are grown on approximately 5,000 acres within the AVA. Grapes for many Texas Wine Collective wines come from key growers on the Texas High Plains, especially Diamanté Doble Vyd near Tokio, Lahey Vyd, Timmons Estate, and Lost Draw Vyd near Brownfield, Bingham Family Vyds near Meadow, and Krick-Hill Vyds near Levelland. Although most Texas wineries lie further south in the Texas Hill Country AVA and North-Central Texas regions, a few major wineries are located in the THP AVA, including Llano Estacado Winery and English-Newsom (CapRock) Winery southeast of Lubbock, McPherson Cellars and Burklee Hill Vineyards in Lubbock, and Farmhouse Vineyards in Brownfield. Kim McPherson, who owns and operates McPherson Cellars, maintains Doc McPherson’s original experimental Sagmor Vineyard located south of Lubbock.
Because of the distance from the Texas High Plains to the Texas Hill Country, transporting grapes can be an issue. One partial solution in recent years has been the development of two major custom crush facilities, Texas Custom Wine Works in Brownfield and Texas Wine Company in Meadow. These facilities can handle most winery operations ranging from grape delivery, refrigeration for shipping, crushing, fermentation, wine aging, to bottling and storage of finished wines. These operations have certainly eased logistic issues for many wineries around the state.
The region’s naturally low nutrient sandy loam soils allow growers to determine when and how much of these nutrients are needed for the crop, allowing for better control during cultivation. The near level vineyards, mostly devoid of rocks and trees, allow most planting, maintenance, and harvest operations to be done mechanically, a significant advantage over hand-maintenance, especially with the limited manpower resources found in the region. Although the AVA typically receives less than 20 inches of precipitation per year and the Texas summer heat can be a challenge, viticulture seems to thrive in the Texas High Plains AVA.
The climate, soils, and overall characteristics for the Texas High Plains AVA tend to favor grape varieties that prefer warm, arid continental climate conditions such as those found in the Mediterranean regions of France, Spain, and Italy. The THP AVA with its high elevation, prolific sun exposure during the growing season, and relatively large diurnal temperature variations probably offers the best area in Texas to grow Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Sauvignon Blanc. Varieties common to the Loire Valley in France, like Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc, also grow well on the THP. Most of the Mediterranean grape varieties, like Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Italian Sangiovese and Montepulciano, and Spanish Tempranillo, are good performers. With the slightly cooler climate and significant diurnal temperature variations, white varieties that come from cooler European regions, like Albarino (northwestern Spain), Viognier (northern Rhône Valley), Pinot Gris (northern Italy), some Muscat varieties, and even Riesling and Gewurztraminer (common in Germany and eastern France), are growing well in certain parts of the Texas High Plains.
Alcohol and Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), Code of Federal Regulations –
27 CFR part 9. https://www.ttb.gov/wine/ava-map-explorer is loaded with fun info, including the boundary descriptions of all approved 261 U.S. AVAs (as of 09-Mar-2022)
The Wine Searcher website has info on most U.S. wine regions, including the Texas AVAs
https://VintageTexas.com/blog/archives/3100 Vintage Texas Sunday ‘Cyclopedia of Wine: Appellation of Origin/American Viticultural Area, 23-Jan-2011
Appellation America - An Introduction to the Texas AVAs, by Eleanor & Ray Heald, December 1, 2009
Other useful sources that contributed to this post include: Go Texan website, Texas Fine Wine, Texas Hill Country Wineries, and the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association.
Previous Carl’s Corner Posts in this “Texas AVAs – What and Why?” Series include the following: all posted on www.texaswinecollective.com website
#1 What’s An AVA, Mama? 05-Jan-2022
#2 What Does an AVA on a Wine Label Mean? 22-Jan-2022
#3 How is an AVA Established? 28-Feb-2022
#4 What is the Value of an AVA? 14-Mar-2022
#5 Texas Hill Country AVA 25-Apr-2022
Just FYI - The largest AVA in the U.S. is the Upper Mississippi River Valley which encompasses portions of several states mostly north of where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi River, spreading over 29 million acres, over three times larger than either the Texas Hill Country or the Texas High Plains AVAs.