The first grape vines were brought to Texas by the Franciscan monks when they travelled up from Mexico to Texas (this was almost a century before the first rootstock arrived in California).
In 1682, the monks started a mission at Ysleta near El Paso on the Rio Grande River. The vines that they brought with them (Vitis Vinifera imported from Europe) flourished.
The productive vineyards of the El Paso Valley continued to grow grapes successfully and produce wine well into the early twentieth century. It is no surprise that almost four centuries later, European varieties are growing all over Texas.
The stereotype of old Western films shows cowboys drinking liquor and beer at the local saloon. While today’s modern cowboy still enjoys these drinks, it seems that they also have started to develop a tendency towards enjoying a great glass or bottle of Texan Tempranillo.
“Absolutely, without a doubt, Tempranillo is 100% Texas’ grape.”
Tempranillo has become a rising star in Texas wine
The renaissance of the Texas wine industry dates back to 1966 when Clinton “Doc McPherson” a chemistry professor at Texas Tech University decided to try his hand at growing grapes and winemaking.
He planted lesser-known grape varieties such as Tempranillo and Viura from Spain, as well as Grenache, Muscat, and Chenin Blanc from France. These vines adapted well to their new environment and grew in the Texas High Plains with great success.
Unlike Doc McPherson, the generation of Texas winemakers that succeeded him planted well-known popular European varieties that already had a successful track record in Napa Valley.
This new generation of grape growers and winemakers were less adventurous than Doc and thought that Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay would be more appealing to their clientele and therefore sell well.
Much to their dismay, many of these varieties did not take kindly to the mercurial Texas weather conditions which included scorching heat, hailstorms, and late frosts.
Many grape growers grew tired of losing up to 40% of their crops and decided that they must re-think their current situation if they were going to be successful in the wine business.
They needed to select grape varieties that would withstand the very precocious weather conditions and also make great wines.
After extensive experimentation, they concluded that Mediterranean, Italian, and Spanish grape varieties seemed more likely to successfully withstand the often challenging growing conditions.
As a result, Texas has a very diverse range of different grape varieties. Most of which grow in the Texas Hill Country and Texas High Plains AVAs.
There are more than 4,500 acres of grapes planted across the eight different Texas AVAs. The Tempranillo grape (the name which is derived from Temprano means early) variety is originally from Rioja Spain and Ribera del Ouro in Portugal.
It is accustomed to growing in dry and hot desert-like conditions where the temperatures can shift between 20 and 40°C between night and daytime.
Tempranillo is the second most planted red grape variety in Texas. It has adapted particularly well to the harsh climate and is one of the only grapes that can grow everywhere in Texas.
Grape production can also be problematic as Tempranillo has a short growing season often resulting in early budburst, which exposes it to a higher risk of frost damage and flower loss which ultimately affects the number of grapes that a vine will produce during a growing season.
It often ripens well before many white grape varieties reach maturation. Winemakers often have to change their winemaking technology (different methods are used when pressing and preparing white and red grapes) mid-harvest for the early arrival of the Tempranillo grapes at the winery.
In their defense, Tempranillo grapes make tasty wines and sell exceptionally well. Due to its popularity, any inconvenience that has been caused during the harvest is soon forgotten. The wines are very successful as drinkers particularly enjoy the complexity and flavors that they offer.
Over the years Texas viticulturists continue their experimentation, and continue to develop Tempranillo clones that are best adapted to the various different locations and growing conditions.
Most of the research at the moment is directed toward developing clones that will have will develop more slowly with a later budburst and bloom to avoid frost damage.
Many vineyards work with Tempranillo not because it is of better quality than other varieties, but because it grows well if not better than other grapes.
The skins are particularly thick helping to protect it against the stifling heat, disease, and insects. It flourishes in even the hottest growing regions and is particularly good as it only needs a short growing season.
Tempranillo wines have a mild flavor with rich red fruit such as dried cherry, and strawberry, notes of leather, tobacco, sandy earth (aka Texas dust), and tomato that are combined with an earth minerality that is often associated with European wines.
Tempranillo is a very expressive grape and will taste different according to what part of the vineyard it comes from. The wines all display different flavors, tannic structures, and aromas that are a reflection of the terroir that they have grown in. Some grapes have more intense fruit flavors than grapes from other areas.
Tempranillo wines are so appealing as they are easily approachable both from a sensory and consumption perspective. Tempranillo grapes that have been harvested at just the right moment produce wines that are the embodiment of elegance, ripe flavors, rich fruit, and fantastic complexity.
This style of wine seems to appeal to Texan wine drinkers as they enjoy its dark fruit and robust personality. As a result, Tempranillo is rapidly becoming a rising wine star in the Texas wine industry.
Unlike in old-world countries, Texans can experiment as much as they like with viticulture and winemaking techniques.
Tempranillo has become very popular in Texas and consumers have become more familiar with it than many of the other international varieties that also thrive in Texas.
It has become so successful in Texas that some winemakers think that it could become the benchmark for Texas wines.
In the future, there may be other varieties that survive the Texas climate even better than Tempranillo, but regardless of if this happens or not, Tempranillo has firmly established its place within the Texas wine industry and will always be an important variety for many grape growers and wine lovers throughout the state.
If you have not tried Texas Tempranillo, what are you waiting for?
There is no better time than the present to discover this amazing “Texan Nectar”. There are many wineries that are producing some amazing wines which should be easily accessible at your wine merchant, local supermarket, or through your wine club.
If you are overwhelmed by the variety of choices on offer, then your local wine professional will be delighted to guide you in the right direction as you begin your “Texas Tempranillo” journey.
You will be amazed at just how delightful and delicious it can be.