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Research looks to match grape varieties with South Plains climate
By KIM LEHMAN
Created 2011-01-20 00:11
The face of the Texas wine label may be changing, and with it a greater variety of wines for consumers and an economical boom to the state from an already burgeoning wine industry.
The Texas Department of Agriculture and area researchers are making a push to place wine on the list of things most notable about Texas, especially in the South Plains.
Texas is the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the country with more than 200 wineries and over $1 billion contributed annually to the Texas economy.
Production of Texas grapes in 2010 was up 44 percent over the previous year. And while wine may not be the first item that comes to mind when thinking about Texas, the times are changing.
The Agriculture Department allotted $1.23 million in grants in 2008 to support the continued growth of the state’s wine industry. It has subsidized research on the viability of different types of wine grapes that may be grown in Texas in order to develop a long-term vision and marketable identity for the wine industry in the state. The bulk of that money, $1 million, has gone to Texas Tech, and the remainder to Grayson County College.
Out of that grant, in a joint appointment with Tech and the Texas Cooperative Extension, Ed Hellman is leading viticultural research in support of the Texas grape and wine industry at the Texas Agri-life Research and Extension Center at 1102 E. FM 1294.
Viticulture research focuses on grape production practices in an effort to match varieties that are well-suited to the climate where they are grown.
This research helps to identify potential grape varieties to field test in Texas for strengths and weaknesses in order to identify the ones that will yield the best possible wines for the state.
Hellman says, “This year is the first year we have been able to harvest the grapes we are field testing. They have been growing here for four years, under our care. It will take a long while to process and evaluate, but the research will help move the industry in Texas in a better direction, and our grapes will be in higher demand in other parts of the state. Texas and the South Plains will become more well-known for their exceptional wines.
“The wine industry here started with traditional varieties like Cabernets and Bordeaux, but maybe we can do better with other varieties in our hot climate. We are evaluating wine grape varieties flourishing in parts of Europe like Spain and Portugal and southern France and Italy where climate is a lot like it is here in the South Plains. The varieties aren’t new, but are new for here.”
Tempranillo is one of the varietals that is showing a lot of promise as a favorite among wine producers in Texas.
Mark Hyman, president and CEO of Llano Estacado Winery, said: “The research programs are outstanding and were desperately needed. We are excited about the process and have been testing the waters with Tempranillo, using small batches of artisinal wines and are releasing this spring a 100 percent Tempranillo cellar reserve wine. Identifying great varietals is the first step. We must also focus our efforts on training our tasting and sales people to educate consumers as the burgeoning wine industry on the South Plains produces wines that are highly marketable, but not well-known in this region as of yet.”
The initial stages have relied heavily on researching wine varietals and identifying the ones with the greatest sustainability and marketability.
But the next obstacle is educating Texas consumers about the varietals showing the most promise — which are not new to the world wine industry, but may be new to the Texas wine industry and its consumers.
Hellman and his research associates and assistants rely heavily on a scientific model of evaluation, beginning with a Geographic Information System (GIS).
GIS analyzes climates, soils and grape varieties of wine regions of the world in an effort to match them to similar characteristics here.
In conjunction, the physiology of grapevine adaptation to climate is investigated. Those results reveal which grape varieties and rootstocks will adapt best to climate and be disease resistant, which may lead to modifications of grape production practices that will improve the end result.
And the end result is the part that most consumers are interested in — which bottle of wine to purchase.
Hellman says, “There is an intense interest by wineries and growers to try these new varieties. Consumers are used to Merlot and Cabernet. But there are many other varieties and blends that will help our industry move forward. That’s why I came here to Texas to help the state become a significant wine-growing region. We can do even better by adding these other varieties.”
But before the best wine possible can be produced, the grapes harvested from the one-acre research vineyard at the Agri-life center must go through numerous tests before making the cut and eventual bottling.
Keith Jenkins is a research associate with the project who is putting the grapes through processing trials at every stage of production, including bottling.
After harvest, the grapes are crushed and placed into pickle jars that have been modified with a fermentation lock to keep the grapes’ natural gases in and air and unwanted bacteria out.
Utilizing the pickle jar method mimics micro-scale fermentation. Jenkins says, “It is easy to replicate and a lot of people are using this method because of scale and cost. We do have plans to expand to larger scale after time.”
The testing, however, involves many high-tech systems that measure sugar content, control pH balance and manage tannin content.
“Everything we are doing is working toward an optimal wine, but the challenge is getting consumers to try something new,” says Jenkins. “If they don’t know the name, they won’t try it. We are also working toward blends and even ports.”
Kim McPherson, who owns the local McPherson winery, says he is in agreement with the need to expand Texas grape varieties through research and with the need to educate Texas consumers on wines they may not be used to hearing about.
He says: “There are many varieties that make beautiful wines that love the climate like we have here, the heat — like Tempranillo, Grenache and Sangiovese. What we are looking for are six to seven varieties that we can hang our hat on that are seen as Texas wine.”