Culture: As Texas Wine Gathers Strength, 6 AVAs Are on the Horizon
Any Texas winemaker can readily recite this fact: Texas is far larger than France, which is home to 11 major wine regions, and yet the Lone Star State only has eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). There’s a good chance that will change in the not-too-distant future.
Six new AVAs are on the horizon for Texas—three with applications in motion, and another three soon-to-be proposed—suggesting the possibility of more definition and visibility that, for many Texas winemakers, feels overdue given the industry’s impressive growth.
“Texas has had a reputation that we can’t grow good fruit,” says Phil Lopez, owner of Silver Spur Winery in north-central Texas. That’s an antiquated way of thinking, he believes. “Many winemakers, in the beginning, imported fruit from California and called it Texas wine. That’s a stigma we must get over.”
Why AVAs Matter
Although wine can legally be made outside of designated AVAs, there’s a clear benefit to wineries of being located within one. In addition to helping further define what one might expect from a given region—the climate, soil, topographical features and more—they’re an excellent way to create marketable identities for premium wine regions.
It’s a truth already apparent in Texas. Of the 268 established American Viticultural Areas, two of the largest are in Texas. The Texas High Plains AVA, where more than 85% of the state’s wine grapes are grown, spans 8 million acres. Even larger is the Texas Hill Country AVA. At 9 million acres (nearly twice the area of New Jersey), it is considered the third largest AVA in the U.S.
You May Also Like: Is Texas the Next Great Wine Region to Watch For?
But large AVAs can deceptively appear to have homogenous growing conditions, says Mike Nelson, owner and winemaker of Ab Astris Winery in Texas Hill Country. “There are significant differences in climate, geology, geography, elevation and overall terroir throughout the Texas Hill Country AVA.”
Some of these proposed AVAs aim to highlight these distinct subregions, as well as other parts of the state where grape growing is prolific or uniquely successful.
Llano Uplift AVA
The proposed Llano Uplift AVA spans 1.3 million acres in the center of the Texas Hill Country AVA. While the surrounding area is primarily composed of ancient limestone, the Llano Uplift is a formation made of granite and metamorphic rock, explains Dr. Justin Scheiner, an assistant professor and viticulture specialist at Texas A&M University.
Limestone is softer than granite and erodes steadily over time, which produces Hill Country’s signature hills. Granite, on the other hand, weathers more slowly, breaking down into different subsidiary soils—some coarse and sandy, some more acidic than alkaline. These variations inform different planting choices for grape growers.
At Uplift Vineyard, in the heart of the AVA, winemaker Claire Richardson works with Italian varieties, creating a concentrated and supple Montepulciano with smooth tannins and a rosé of Sangiovese that expresses red berries and medium acidity. Sangiovese is the most prolific grape at Uplift, according to estate manager Zinn Brown and vineyard manager Jose Alonso.
Hickory Sands AVA
Drew Tallent, owner of Tallent Vineyards, along with Dan McLaughlin of Robert Clay Vineyards and Tesha Parr Solomon of Parr Vineyards, are collectively the driving force behind the application for the Hickory Sands AVA. Also pending final approval, it’s located in the northwest corner of the Llano Uplift.
McLaughlin used ArcGis, a mapping software, to demonstrate the proposed AVA’s position at 1,500 feet of elevation above the Hickory Aquifer and its soil composition of decomposed granite and sandstone gravel. Parr Solomon says that new AVAs are evolving at a time when the standard Texas wine consumer is knowledgeable and “hungry for differentiation.”
Hidden Waters AVA
On the far west side of the state, the proposed Hidden Waters AVA is in the Chihuahuan Desert, east of El Paso. The region is in the shadow of Guadalupe Peak, the tallest in Texas. Though annual rainfall is low, water drains into the valley, creating a sub-aquifer that floats like an underground river. Heat can be extreme during summer, but the high desert cools down significantly at night, giving the grapes time to relax.
Danny Heredia, owner of Dell Valley Vineyards, explains that many older vines here produce complex wines from varieties like Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Chenin Blanc, Muscat and Tempranillo. He believes the proposed AVA will help cement a sense of place.
“AVAs are always part of the conversation,” says Heredia. “Different regions being known for different things creates more of an identity we can all take advantage of and be proud of.”
More AVA Applications on the Way
The ball is already rolling for Hidden Waters, Hickory Sands and Llano Uplift AVAs; however, another three AVAs are slated for 2024 applications with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
One is the tentatively named Pedernales River Basin AVA. The river ribbons through Texas Hill Country in and around Fredericksburg, along one of the most popular wine tourism routes in the state. In that sub-area, supporters of the potential AVA claim the sedimentary layers work together to create nuance in the wines. The presence of limestone, which lends itself to brightness and minerality, enhances those characteristics in the wines, particularly in whites like Ab Astris’ Clairette Blanche.
You May Also Like: The Budding Wine Scene in Fredericksburg, Texas
“Loam and clay help retain moisture towards the surface, while decomposed limestone beneath moves moisture down and out after heavy rains,” says Nelson.
The Brazos River basin has similarly striated soil along the Cross Timbers Wine Trail in north-central Texas, where a Cross Timbers AVA is in development. Lopez finds that the area’s Tannat in particular “bullies through” challenges posed by humidity, fungal pressure and insects.
The Brazos flows 840 miles across Texas, traveling toward the Gulf of Mexico. It informs growing conditions in a potential Gulf Coast AVA. Discussion about it is ongoing, backed by Paul Bonariggo, a second-generation owner and winemaker at Messina Hof, one of the largest wine producers in Texas, and Kimbrough Jeter, owner of Threshold Vineyards in Navasota and the president of Gulf Coast Winegrowers Association. Both believe that the region will ultimately be broken down into multiple AVA applications.
Blanc du Bois, a hybrid that originated at the University of Florida in 1988, and Lenoir, a hardy native grape that’s ideal for Port, are defining regional varieties in the Gulf Coast. Blanc Du Bois is versatile as a still or sparkling wine and is at the heart of Haak Wine’s Madeira program.
Those grapes are also in use farther down the coast. The envisioned Rio Grande Valley AVA, near South Padre Island, spans four counties between the Gulf of Mexico and the Rio Grande River.
“There’s 300 miles of prairie ranch land between us and everybody else,” says Arthur Delgado, winemaker and owner of Bonita Flats Farm and Vineyard, which is located northeast of Los Fresnos. Although daily southeasterly winds, warm soil temperature and drought periods present challenges, well-adapted Blanc du Bois, Lenoir and convent grapes—part of the family of grapes that Spanish missionaries brought to North and South America in the 16thth century—provide regional distinction. Delgado uses convent grapes to make rosé, while Ricardo Rubiano, developer and owner of Rubiano Vineyard in Harlingen, highlights this historic fruit in his Port wine, which is currently barrel aging.
You May Also Like: Exploring the Diverse, Terroir-Driven Wines of the American Southwest
It’s these regional distinctions in varietals, history and terroir that have compelled Texas winemakers and grape growers to push for these new AVAs. Doing so, they believe, will further help the state’s growing wine industry to achieve recognition on a national scale, and will distinguish the state’s many diverse grape growing regions.
January Wiese, the executive director of Texas Hill Country Wineries, says that when the Texas Hill Country AVA was designated in 1991, just establishing the name was the goal. Now, following three decades of growth, more industry leaders are pursuing new AVAs.
“They have vision and are driving for more,” says Wiese. “They want more for Texas wine.”
Last Updated: October 6, 2023