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Texas Wine: Down To A Science

Texas A&M scientists and AgriLife Extension specialists help fine tune the Texas wine industry

Did you know the “grape” State of Texas has changed wine as we know it?

Many grapes used across the world for wine, including those from centuries-old European vineyards, have Texas roots, literally.

Vineyards throughout France’s famed appellation system and beyond boast distinct regional features and terroir, the environmental conditions that give wine grapes their taste. But they could not grow without rootstocks from native Texas grapes identified and studied by T.V. Munson, a 19th century Texas scientist and horticulturist.

Munson’s work with several native Texas grapes eventually saved European wines from the pest insect phylloxera. This pest devastated millions of acres of European grapes, causing enormous losses in the European wine industry.

The solution was grafting European grapes like Merlot, Sangiovese and even thousand-year-old varieties like Pinot Noir on top of phylloxera-resistant Texas grape rootstocks collected and studied by Munson. Munson’s efforts saved and continues to protect wine production in Europe and around the world.

To this day, Texas A&M AgriLife carries on Munson’s belief that study and science provide solutions. Scientists and educators continue to build comprehensive research, education and outreach programs to guide and support the expansion of Texas horticulture and the wine industry as it continues to grow in output and reputation.

[VIDEO: The Grape State of Texas]

Wine science leads the way

Amit Dhingra, Ph.D., head of the Department of Horticultural Sciences in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said Texas A&M horticulturists and scientists across Texas are following and expanding on the principles that led to Munson’s historic influence on global wine. Even today, science continues to fuel the wine industry, significantly bolstering the Texas wine industry’s recent and rapid expansion.

We can safely say that “wine science” will continue to lead vineyards, winemakers and wine drinkers into the future, Dhingra said.

Dhingra was appointed by the Texas Department of Agriculture to lead the scientific delegation to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, an intergovernmental organization that deals with technical and scientific aspects of viticulture and winemaking. 

Furthermore, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service has expanded its expertise over the last decade to provide support for vineyards and winemakers as the industry expanded, Dhingra said. The agency now has 13 specialists and researchers dedicated to viticulture and enology on campus and regions across the state, including the Gulf Coast, Hill Country, North Texas and High Plains.

Additionally, the Department of Horticultural Sciences is expanding its faculty and curriculum to provide expertise and education to next-generation vine and wine professionals, he said.

“We are very excited about where the Texas wine industry is today and our position to serve our growers and winemakers and to help the industry continue to grow and evolve,” Dhingra said. “We want to embrace the legacy of T.V. Munson because of the impact his work has had over the globe and because we believe Texas A&M is the natural place to develop the next generation of solutions and problem solvers.”

Texas produces 10,000 different wines every year using around 80 different grape varieties. We have endless opportunities for wine lovers to explore the state and experience these wines.”

Justin Scheiner, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Extension Viticulture Specialist
Department of Horticultural Sciences

Texas wine boom

Although the Texas wine industry has a long legacy within the state, it is relatively young in the wine world, Dhingra said.

In Texas, wine grapes are an agricultural crop that directly impacts every part of the state. In total, the Texas wine industry has a $20.35 billion economic impact, from tourism to more than 100,000 jobs that inject around $1 billion in taxes to localities.

Texas has more than 1,300 soil types in a range of distinct regions with quality wines that feature regional characteristics based on localized microclimates. All in all, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of Treasury has designated eight American Viticultural Areas in the state so far, with two new AVA’s pending final approval.

The Texas Hill Country is already among the most-visited winemaking region in the U.S., drawing over 1 million visitors annually. And while the Texas Hill Country may be the most toured wine and viticulture area in the state, 80% of the state’s wine grape production occurs in the higher elevations and drier air of the Texas High Plains.

Areas within these designated American Viticultural Areas, like Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country, are known for their distinct production qualities. Other areas with more localized climactic and soil characteristics, like the Llano Uplift ­in Blanco, Burnet, Gillespie, Llano, Mason, McCulloch and San Saba counties, are not yet official viticulture areas but are quickly becoming known for microclimates that produce award-winning wines.

“People ask, ‘What will be the grape variety that will define Texas?’” Dhingra said. “But Texas is as large as France, with 11 different growing regions and even more subregions. Texas has an incredible potential to develop unique varietals and terroir that wine lovers can only experience with Texas wine grapes and wines.”

Texas wine production, reputation growing

Justin Scheiner, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences and AgriLife Extension viticulture specialist, Bryan-College Station, said the Texas wine industry has rapidly expanded in recent decades.

In 2000, there were 40 licensed vineyards, and by 2010, there were 200. Today, there are 806 active winery permits for operations around the state, which now ranks second behind California for wine grape and wine production. More than half of the 254 Texas counties boast a commercial vineyard.

Quantity is one thing, but wine is about quality, Scheiner said, and Texas consistently ranks high in national and international blind-taste competitions. However, Texas vineyards and winemakers may be lesser known at the national level because the industry is relatively young, but its reputation is growing.

Growth is good for vineyards, winemakers and consumers, he said. Most wineries in Texas are small and sell directly to consumers, emphasizing tasting rooms and restaurants.

“We have more than 800 wineries, and every winery produces a minimum of 10 wines,” Scheiner said. “Texas produces 10,000 different wines every year using around 80 different grape varieties. We have endless opportunities for wine lovers to explore the state and experience these wines.”

“We are the world’s laboratory for any kind of research because we have the microclimates and the soil types. You can see how the puzzle is coming together, where all the pieces are in place. This really puts Texas wine in a unique position globally.”

Amit Dhingra, Ph.D.
Head, Department of Horticultural Sciences

Looking long-term for Texas wine

This massive boom within the Texas wine industry required a lot of expertise and knowledge-sharing to maintain its momentum in a lasting, sustainable way. Texas A&M viticulturists have been ever-present partners with Texas vineyards and winemakers for decades, working hand-in-hand to identify research-backed solutions and opportunities.

Much of what Scheiner and other specialists have done over the past decade is provide guidance to prospective wine grape producers and work with established vineyards to mitigate production challenges and conduct research that has propelled the industry forward.

Because Texas is so geographically and climatically diverse, Scheiner said producers face a range of challenges, including plant diseases, insect pests, and extreme weather and drought, that are distinct to their location. For example, a vineyard in the Texas Hill Country will face a drastically different climate than a Gulf Coast vineyard. By design of AgriLife Extension, these grape and wine specialists are available to help growers in all corners of the state, with science-based recommendations and options.

AgriLife Extension specialists played significant roles in helping wine grape growers overcome major production hurdles like Pierce’s disease. Viticulture and enology specialists continue to seek new ways to improve wine grape production, from protecting fruit from drought, hailstorms and other extreme weather, to eliminating cork taint, a global problem for winemakers.

“We are the direct contact with grape growers, especially those who are just beginning to grow, but also with experienced growers who collaborate with us on applied site research or demonstration projects,” he said. “Texas boasts a lot of smart, savvy growers who are finding solutions. Vineyards are a serious investment, and there are a lot of mistakes that can be made along the way. We’re there to pass along knowledge and trade tips to save growers a lot of money and heartache.”

Wine expertise across the state

Texas is big. Because of the state’s wide range of microclimates, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service has experts embedded around the state.

  • Gulf Coast Wine Region
  • High Plains Wine Region
  • North Texas Wine Region
  • Hill County Wine Region
  • West Texas Wine Region

The Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association offers more information on these distinct regions.

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What’s in a label? Everything

With the arrival of more and more vineyards across the state, Scheiner said they are also helping vineyards create unique identities that separate them according to the microclimate where their grapes are grown. AgriLife Extension is working with vineyards and the Texas Wine Growers to petition for more American Viticultural Areas around the state with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Labeled viticulture areas help identify and promote specific regions and better inform consumers, Scheiner said. This information builds brand and label trust and is directed toward the ascendance and long-term reputation of Texas wines globally in the same ways that wines from Napa Valley, California, or Bordeaux, France, are celebrated and revered.    

“You can always tie what we do back to farming because wine is literally one step from the field to the consumer,” Scheiner said. “But the thing that sets wine apart is that the grapes and where they are grown have such a huge impact on the wine. I don’t know another food crop that we can so easily tie the taste to the region it came from.”

“There is a unique community within this industry because wine is about fellowship. It’s a product of nature that has brought people together for thousands of years. Yes, we want to focus on environmental and economic sustainability, human health and food security, but all of it feeds the community and our overall wellness. We hope to bring all those critical pieces together here.”

Amit Dhingra, Ph.D.
Head, Department of Horticultural Sciences

Cultivating community through education, outreach

Growth of the Texas wine industry has a direct economic impact, but its development over the coming decades will spawn a range of social, cultural and environmental benefits that tie to wine’s millennia-old role in communities. Dhingra said horticulture is a discipline that has a strong opportunity to impact overall human health and wellness in a multi-faceted way, especially as it brings people together from vine to pour.

“There is a unique community within this industry because wine is about fellowship,” he said. “It’s a product of nature that has brought people together for thousands of years. Yes, we want to focus on environmental and economic sustainability, human health and food security, but all of it feeds the community and our overall wellness. We hope to bring all those critical pieces together here.”

Texas A&M AgriLife is preparing to expand its already comprehensive and interconnected support system to provide an even more balanced and sustainable approach for the industry and Texans, he said. Texas wine and the community it provides Texans will be supported by a commitment to education, training and outreach.

The industry needs expertise and trained professionals, Dhingra said, and Texas A&M AgriLife is buttressing the professional pipeline to meet that demand. The Department of Horticultural Sciences is adding new faculty positions, focusing on breeding, physiology and secondary metabolism of horticultural crops and grapes, who will expand the current horticulture curriculum to cover additional topics in viticulture and enology, or what Dhingra calls “wine science.”

The department is also creating a flexible, non-academic certificate program that addresses the educational needs identified within the industry. Initiatives like Spirited Learning, an interactive experience for students to learn about Texas horticulture, offer a glimpse into possible career paths for students majoring in horticultural sciences.  

“This new infusion of faculty and a new degree program in this area will really help the entire horticulture industry because discoveries that solve problems in wine production may apply to fruit and vegetables or commodities like corn,” he said. “Horticulture is the No. 2 industry in Texas and has a $60 billion economic impact across the state from nurseries to orchards. We want to realize the Texas wine industry’s potential, but we also want to be aware of the broader implications of our efforts.”   

Puzzle pieces make a picture

Texas A&M AgriLife will continue to expand its outreach and training programs to engage Texans with the industry. For instance, the agency is engaged in programs that provide innovative Texas Education Agency-approved viticulture curriculum for high school students around the state. Scheiner said those classes are very popular and school districts are eager for more programming. An online course for high school students is expected to be ready this fall.

Dhingra also believes collaborations with other departments, including the Department of Hospitality, Hotel and Tourism Management and the Aplin Center will enhance education and outreach programming. The collaboration will uniquely meld horticulture, entrepreneurship, business practices and problem-solving alongside industry professionals and producers to benefit students.

Innovation is rapidly evolving the horticultural sciences, he said. Technology like controlled environment and precision agriculture, robotics and artificial intelligence are pushing the discipline in new and exciting ways. The department is preparing horticulture students for that future.

Dhingra said there is a bevy of activity within multiple departments in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences that will ultimately contribute to the sustainability and long-term success of the Texas wine industry.

“We are the world’s laboratory for any kind of research because we do have microclimates and the soil types, we do have the extreme weather conditions and varietal options,” he said. “You can see how the puzzle is coming together, where all the pieces are in place. This really puts Texas wine in a unique position globally.”