Texas High Plains Vineyards, Aug-2018
Many Texas wine drinkers don’t realize that about 80% of all wine grapes in Texas are grown on the Texas High Plains, mostly west of Lubbock. Folks are generally surprised to learn that the vineyards producing these grapes are located a 4-6 hour drive from where most of the Texas wineries and tasting rooms are located. During harvest season, usually late July through late September, a LOT of trucks and trailers can be seen on Texas highways hauling grapes and grape must to be processed by wineries in the Red River area, Central West Texas, and the Texas Hill Country. After enjoying a wonderful 5-day adventure to the Texas High Plains where the 2018 harvest was just beginning, it seemed a good idea to address this distance gap between Texas grapes and Texas wineries and tasting rooms.
There are several reasons why so many wine grapes are grown on the Texas High Plains. Weather is one of those important reasons. The Texas High Plains region ranges in elevation from about 3,300 to 3,700 feet and is part of the great central plains of the U.S., stretching southward from the Dakotas through Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. On these elevated plains, cold winters set the grapes up for their burst of growth in the spring. Warm summer and early fall days with lots of sunshine support photosynthesis which is key to ripening grapes. And, the large diurnal temperature change from a warm daily high to a cool early morning low allows grapevines a period of rest when the plant’s natural chemistry can rebalance, enhancing sugar and flavor integration in the grapes and better distributing carbohydrates for healthier vines.
Texas High Plains soil-types are also important to growing good grapes. Much of the soil is either sandy-loam or loamy-sand. There is often limestone or caliche involved, and the soil is typically deep rusty red in color due to high iron content. These loosely structured and relatively low vigor soils allow for good root development and better fruit. These soils also allow for efficient irrigation and nutrient delivery via overhead drip or underground delivery systems. Irrigation is critical to growing grapes in most parts of Texas, and so long as water is available in the underground Ogallala Aquifer, agriculture will remain a key part of the life style and economy of the High Plains. Since grapes require less irrigation water than most other crops commonly grown in this area, many farmers have established vineyards to augment their overall agricultural portfolios.
The Texas High Plains topography is also a contributor to establishing and managing vineyards. The land is generally void of native trees and quite flat with only small changes in elevation across large expanses. This has led to the development of efficient farming practices where large-scale agricultural equipment is employed for cotton, grain, peanuts, soybeans, and now grapes. “Big Ag” practices make it possible to farm larger vineyards more efficiently and economically than can be done in many other parts of the Lone Star State. As in major growing areas of California and Washington, mechanical pruning, weeding, de-leafing, spraying, and harvesting are common practices for the Texas High Plains grape grower.
There are some drawbacks to growing grapes on the Texas High Plains. Weather, again, plays a role. Cold winters can cause freeze damage that kill off some vines and damage others. Growers replant dead vines or severely prune back damaged vines after such freeze damage. Cold weather in the spring can often have an even bigger impact where fruiting buds and early leaf growth can be damaged or destroyed. There was massive loss of fruit in the 2013 vintage due to several spring frost episodes. Many grape growers have purchased and installed measures to combat these spring frost episodes. Large wind machines help to push warmer air from above into vineyards, displacing colder air near the ground. Furnaces with blowers can be positioned to warm the most vulnerable sections in a vineyard. And, small gas heaters distributed throughout a vineyard can keep temperatures from reaching damaging low levels. All of these measures are expensive, but then so are the grapes they protect.
Summer hailstorms also pose a significant threat to the grape farmer. Hailstones can batter leaves and stems, and damage developing fruit, limiting both quantity and quality. Recently, experimental use of hail netting has been employed to prevent significant damage. Just this spring, hail netting over some vineyards near Brownfield in Terry County prevented grape and vine damage during a significant hailstorm. Again, this preventative measure is expensive and requires extra effort, but the grapes saved can make it worthwhile.
The point of this Carl’s Corner edition is to highlight our dependence on grapes grown on the Texas High Plains to support our burgeoning Texas Wine Industry. It is important to understand the reasons why so many of our vineyards are located on the High Plains rather than nearer the majority of wineries and tasting rooms in the more central part of the state. And, finally, there needs to be an appreciation for Texas grape growers and the trials and tribulations they endure to provide grapes that produce the Texas wines we enjoy. Just remember, without dedicated farmers, there would be no grapes, and thus no wine.