The “Roussanne Advantage”: The White Grape for Texas

The last three years have been a challenge for wine grape growers in Texas with freezes of all sorts possible: Fall freeze, mid-winter freeze, and Spring freeze. The Fall Freeze came on Halloween 2019 and the mid-Winter “deep” freeze around Valentine’s Day. Spring freezes seem to be a regular or nearly annual occurrence in someone’s vineyard around the state. I almost forgot to mention another freeze event of sorts: hail, Texas’s tongue-in-cheek references to ice wine.

Anyway, with all this focus on freeze events in our normally warm wine-growing regions in Texas, we need to acknowledge that subfreezing weather has hit grape production hard. In 2020, Texas grape production is down about 50 percent in harvested tonnage from the highs in 2018-2019, thus taking our state from 6th position in states with the largest grape harvests to around 13th. The grapes that have taken it particularly hard are whites with an example being Viognier at 100 tons (0.6 tons/acre) in 2020 versus over 700 tons (4.0 tons/acre) back in 2019. Another white grape hit particularly hard with the freezes was Vermentino, with no vineyards reporting production in 2020 or 2021.

We have known for some time that the southern Rhone white variety, sun-loving Roussanne, has the tendency to bud two or more weeks later in the Spring than other white grape varieties. This has given it an already-experienced advantage over other white grapes in Texas’s highly variable Spring season. In terms of Texas production, Roussanne scored 160 tons (2.1 tons/acre) in 2020 versus the 310 tons (4.2 tons/acre) it had in 2019. While in 2020, it was only half of the tonnage in 2019, this is still a much better performance than many other whites growing in Texas.

“New news” was learned about the “Roussanne Advantage” from recent Texas A&M Agrilife Extension research. It was that around the time of 2021 Valentine’s Day freeze, Roussanne did better in terms of the cold hardiness of its buds, than other wine grapes including many red grapes in the study like Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s another big plus for this grape in Texas – Sun-loving yet cold-hardy.

OK, people, there is one more thing on the side of Roussanne for Texas that I’ve saved for last, and it is likely the best attribute of all. Texas-grown Roussanne makes excellent wine. On my list of highly-rated wines that I tasted in 2021 were several outstanding Roussannes made by different winemakers at different Texas wineries. A few well-regarded examples of recent vintages of Texas Roussanne are:

William Chris Vineyards, 2020 Roussanne, La Pradera Vineyards, Texas High Plains (Judge’s Selection Medal for Best White in Texas at 2021 TEXSOM International Wine Awards)

McPherson Cellars, 2010 Roussanne Reserve, Bingham Vineyards, Texas High Plains (also showing this grape variety’s aging potential)

Wedding Oak Winery, 2019 Roussanne, Texas High Plains, Phillips Vineyard (you just have to taste this wine to believe it – Chardonnay lovers welcome)

Duchman Family Winery, 2020 Roussanne, Texas High Plains, Oswald Vineyard (2021 San Francisco International Wine Competition Gold Medal; while Duchman Winery made a reputation for its Vermentino, winemaker Dave Reilly is now a Roussanne believer)

English Newsom Cellars, 2019 Roussanne, Texas High Plains, Steve & Cindy Newsom Vineyards (Double Gold/Class Champion at the 2022 Houston Rodeo Uncorked International Wine Competition)

Perissos Vineyards and Winery, 2019 Roussanne Reserve, Texas High Plains, One Way Vineyard (Best of Class Roussanne winner)

During a recent Texas Fine Wine Zoom Taste and Talk Session, it was interesting to note the discussion between Dave Reilly, winemaker at Duchman Family Winery, and Ron Yate, owner of Spicewood Vineyards and Yates Wines. These two can usually be counted on for their extended banter with Yates hawking the merits of Tempranillo for Texas while Reilly counters with his exaltations on Texas-grown Aglianico. But, in this case, both made note of their recent good experiences with Roussanne in 2019 through 202, including mention of both its abilities in the vineyard to take what Texas weather can throw at it, while also performing exceptionally in the winemaking process once in the winery. I felt obliged to throw into the conversation that the most expensive and age-worthy white wines from the French Rhone Valley are blends that lead with a majority of Roussanne in the blend.

I sincerely hope that everyone in the Texas wine industry takes note of the “Roussanne Advantage”. Additionally, educated consumers are needed to help drive the market for high-quality and age-worthy Texas wines like Roussanne.

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Love to taste, talk and tweet about Texas wines and where they are in the global scheme for wines. After all that's the only way they will reach the full potential.

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