So far this year (2022), Texas grape growers are experiencing record high temperatures, compounded in severity by little rainfall. By multiple reports from the field, the 2022 season is producing berry sizes ranging from 40% to 60% less than the previous growing season. This means the overall yield of the crop will be substantially reduced, resulting in fewer grapes, and thus less wine. That’s not a very pretty portrait. Right?
Well, the grapevine is a unique species of flowering plant. When the berry sizes are reduced due to stress, paradoxically the quality of the berry generally increases.
The vine can thrive in areas where most traditional agriculture fails. In many of the grape-growing areas around the world, the best sites are often in the harshest environments. Steep slopes, terrain of rocks and sparse vegetation, and thin soils that appear less than inviting. While challenging for any plant, when the grapevines struggle to produce fruit, the results are a more concentrated and flavorful grape. So these hot and rain-starved conditions throughout Texas in 2022 are actually producing some of the highest quality fruit we have seen in years.
What is a Vintage?
Wine will usually have a year on the label, and that year is what’s referred to as the “vintage.” The vintage is, simply, the year that the grapes were picked. The year on the bottle does not have anything to do with the year it was casked, bottled, or released for sale.
The resulting quality of each vintage is different and dependent on many factors, such as climate, weather, and overall growing conditions. Vineyards all over the world produce wines of varying quality each year, but some years are inevitably better than others. A great vintage is one where the grapes reach optimal ripeness and produce wines that are well-balanced with bright fruit flavors, acidity, and flavors characteristic of that varietal.
In traditional wine making regions, the Vintage carries more significance. This is due to the fact that many traditional or “Old World” regions are at the full mercy of mother nature, where irrigation is often a foreign concept, or it is outright prohibited by the regional wine laws.
Similarly, in Texas you’ll find mother nature providing punishment to the vines, which leads to vintages full of ideal, sought-after character.
What is Dry Farming?
Dry farming is a technique commonly used in areas with limited water resources, such as much of the “Old World,” i.e. Europe. At its most simple, dry farming is a lack of irrigation. With less water reaching the vineyard, this forces the roots to plunge deeper into the soil in search of moisture. This results in smaller crop yields, but the grapes that are produced are of exceptional quality. When the vines work harder, the quality is better.
Until quite recently, irrigation was an unknown concept for grape growers in Europe. All vineyards were dry farmed, as this was the only way to produce grapes. However, with the relatively new concept of irrigation, many growers have switched to this method in order to increase their yields. In the regions that do allow for irrigation, it is strictly regulated and monitored by the local governing bodies. While this may be more efficient from a business standpoint, it does lead to lower quality wines, and dry farming is still the classic, traditional way to grow grapes in the Old World.
Water Stress is Good
While it may seem like an odd practice for any farmer to purposefully prohibit water from soaking into their precious plants, this is precisely what happens in some vineyards around the world that do have a system of irrigation in place. During the winter months, if the naturally occurring rainfall is scarce, farmers will turn on the spigots to water their vines. Once the plants go through the dormant period and come to life in the spring, artificial irrigation can be limited and often prohibited. The result is a smaller crop, but each grape is intensely flavored and concentrated. While it may seem counterintuitive, some of the best wines are produced in years where the growing conditions are less than ideal.
Low Yield Equals High Quality
It is a general rule in the wine world that the lower the yield, the higher the quality of the grape. This has been proven time and time again, as some of the most sought after wines are from years where conditions were less than ideal. Bad, tough weather can actually lead to great wine.
This isn’t to say all growers want lower yields on their crop. Some root for rains or irrigation practices that produce bigger berries and more yields, as the literal fruits of their labor directly correlate to how they are compensated.
This leads to the accepted compromise between grower and winemaker: what yield to target, and thus how much water to use, or how much stress to introduce to the vine. A grapevine left to its own devices can net well over 10 tons of fruit per acre, but the accepted crop loads fall between 3-4 tons per acre. This is an age-old battle in every wine region and every harvest, and will no doubt continue on as long as winemakers and growers work together to produce wine.
For the 2022 vintage in Texas, crop loads are well below the 3-4 ton mark, meaning dramatically smaller yields this year. Fewer bottles will be produced, however the bottles that you can find will be concentrated with flavors unlike any previous vintages of the last decade.
Be on the Lookout for the 2022 Vintage
Maturation times vary, but typically red wines are aged between 1 to 2 years. Around 18 months is common, which means we will have to wait until 2024 before we will know just how well the vintage will fare. It may be still too early to tell how great the vintage will be, all signs point to a classic year that will rival some of the best vintages in recent memory.
It may prove to be difficult to find these wines on store shelves in abundance, but they are definitely worth seeking out for any wine lover. So next time you are looking for a special bottle of wine, don't forget to look for the vintage from the Texas growing season of 2022. These vines have worked harder than most, and the quality should be spectacular.