Ode to the #1 White Grape in Texas, Blanc Du Bois and the Five Other Things I Learned at the Gulf Coast Winegrowers 2023 Watson Field Day 

It was a chilly Texas Gulf Coast morning, but comfortable in the historic Cat Spring Agricultural Hall near Sealy in the heart of the notable, pre-Prohibition wine region about an hour west of Houston. It was an all-day technical program followed by an afternoon tasting of some of the area’s wines. 

Texas Gulf Coast Winegrowers Association 2023 Watson Field Day

Ode to Blanc Du Bois… It’s Time to Celebrate!

The one thing that was obvious from the start of the meeting was that everyone revelling in what was referred to as “the premier white grape of Texas” – Blanc Du Bois, or as many now call it, simply “Blanc” or abbreviated it “BDB”. In fact, as shown below, out of all the wine grapes grown in Texas, Blanc Du Bois ranks 5th. Blanc Du Bois and NOT Viognier is the top produced white grape in Texas. In production, it sits behind Texas’s well-regarded reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Merlot and Mourvèdre.  

In fact, both Blanc Du Bois and Black Spanish (also called Lenoir) make the list of top wine grape varieties produced in the state of Texas.

#1 – New Varieties of Wine Grapes are Coming to the Gulf Coast

While nearly everyone seems to believe that the only grapes that can be grown on the Texas Gulf Coast is Blanc Du Bois and Black Spanish because of the pressure from Pierce’s disease, actually many new options are coming online for the area’s growers. First, a relatively new hybrid grape for Texas is called Blanc Du Soleil (BDS), bred by Florida A&M University in 1999. It is another PD-resistant interspecies hybrid containing a huge genetic mix from American native grapes (Vitis aestivalis, Vitis cinerea, Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia, Vitis rupestris) and European wine grapes (Vitis vinifera). BDS is being given in workout in south Texas coastal region at the Christopher Family Vineyards located near Goliad.

Another new approach to beating the scourge of Pierce’s disease is the recent release of what have collectively become known as the ”Walker varieties”. These were developed by Dr. Andrew Walker and fellow researchers at U.C. Davis in California. They are a hybrid of Vitis vinifera (European wine grapes) and a particular American native grape known as Vitis arizonica (a grape known to have a single gene that brings with it PD resistance. Their genetic mix is more than 95% vinifera and usually less than 5% arizonica and they have only recently been commercially released in Texas through nurseries.

Five Walker variety grapes (White wine grapes on left and red wine grapes on right).

#2 – New Viticultural Areas for Texas

There appears to be a renewed interest in adding to the present list of eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Texas that has remained unchanged since 2007. While none of the new areas have yet been granted AVA status from the U.S. federal government, some are getting close to their approval. Most notable is the progress on the proposed AVA, “Llano Uplift”. It is geologically different than most of the areas in the Texas Hill County AVA as it was formed by a volcanic granitic intrusion that gave us our beloved Enchanted Rock. But, not to be out done, there is another new AVA in the works near to the Llano Uplift called ”Hickory Sands”. Its petition is based on closely spaced regions of sandy soils that originated from the Hickory Sandstone formation.

Finally, I have heard rumors that possibly three more Texas AVAs may be in the works. These range in regions from the Texas Gulf Coast to Upper East Texas to the hilly region just north of the present Texas Hill Country.

#3 – Verjus: A Natural Method to Improve Wine Acidity; Can Make “Mocktails”, too!

High pH (low acid) in harvested grapes, juice, and resulting wine are a challenge for those making wine in Texas, an acknowledged warm growing region. This situation can result in a range of wine issues from spoilage to unwanted wine characteristics. This situation is usually remedied with addition of tartaric acid but this may bring other unwanted characteristics to the wine. A potentially natural, sustainable alternative to using tartaric acid is the use of Verjus made from the low-sugar, highly acidic unripe grapes from early vineyard cluster thinning also known as ”green harvesting”.

Green harvesting is the removal of a portion of the grapes before full ripening while they have high acid and low sugar.

These grapes can be used to make grape juice (known in French as ”Verjus”) that has for a long time been used in cooking as an alternative to vinegar in marinades, sauces and salad dressings, and more recently in Mocktails”, non-alcoholic cocktails.

Texas A&M Agrilife researchers are focusing on the use of Verjus from cluster thinned grapes, normally a source of vineyard waste that are discarded, as an acidifying agent to improve the overall acid balance of Texas wines.

#4 – Potential of BioChar for Soil Improvement

I first learned of BioChar when taking classes to become a Texas Master Naturalist where they discussed how burned organic matter can enhance the performance of nutritionally deficient soils to grow native plants. Evidently, it works to rejuvenate wild prairie land resulting from natural or prescribed burns.

BioChar for the prairies, gardens and possibly vineyards

A presentation at the Cat Spring meeting by Texas A&M found that there is new scientific evidence being developed by researchers that shows BioChar can also be used in farms (and gardens) to enhance soil nutrition and increase the productivity of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Who knows, it may even have benefits in Texas vineyards. Before the meeting was over, I went online and purchased a 128 ounce container of BioChar for my 2023 vegetable garden from Amazon. It was delivered the next day and I started adding it under and around the plants that I was putting in my garden. Later this year, I will let you know how it works.

#5 – Gulf Coast Wines… The Proof is in the Tasting

At the end of the day, we gathered around a long skirted table where at least a couple dozen bottles of wine were lined up, maybe more as I lost count. By perusing the bottles, I noted that some of the wines had professionally printed labels and some were simply tagged with names written on stickers with a black magic marker. Nearly all of these wines were produced by local wineries or growers with obvious winemaking aspirations. There was a prevalence of those made from Blanc Du Bois and Black Spanish. The Blancs were either dry or off-dry and generally expressing very nice varietal characteristics of citrus, pear and grapefruit.

One notable wine that I tasted was a dry table wine (not a Port-style wine) labeled as Arreguy Roja from Rising Sun Vineyards near McDade, TX. It was made as a blend of Black Spanish with 12.5% Barbara and 12.5% Tannat. It dispelled any possible notions that Black Spanish wine cannot be made in this style. It was excellent!

Rising Sun Vineyard Arreguy Roja, Red Wine

There was also a wine made from one of the new Walker grape varieties, Camminare Noir, grown in Texas from Loblolly Cellars, K4H Vineyards. It was a light-medium bodied red wine with bright red fruit (raspberry and cherry) flavors and a light herbal hint on the nose and good tannic structure. Bottom line is that Texas Gulf Coast wines are doing well with more options available than every before.

Camminare Noir from Loblolly Cellars, K4H Vineyards

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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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