Texas is approximately the size of France, a comparison Texas wine professionals point out frequently. And though there are only some 5,000 acres of vineyards in the state, compared with some 2 million in France, Texas wine supporters often use this parallel to segue into a conversation about the distinct and perhaps underpublicized regions of the Texas terroir.
Texas wines often showcase the minerality of the region since the state’s climate dictates that the fruit is harvested earlier and stays on the vine for less time than, say, the juicy, fruit-forward wines of California. However, this same climate also makes growing grapes in Texas challenging. With long, hot summers, the occasional (though possibly more frequent in the future due to climate change) harsh freeze, and unpredictable storms, winemakers rely on hardy grape varieties that are well suited for each region. Hye winery William Chris Vineyards, for example, does not grow viognier, despite owner Chris Brundrett believing the state can produce “some of the best viognier on the planet.” While the grape, which requires a long, warm growing season, can thrive in Texas — and there are some vineyards that do produce the fruit — it cannot survive freezes. This means that roughly every other year, those growers are in for huge losses — either lower yields or having to completely replant the vine.
When thinking about growing grapes for wine in Texas, there are a few factors to consider:
- Elevation: Higher elevations mean more direct ultraviolet rays, giving grapes thicker skin. This can lead to more color and more tannins in the wine.
- Soil: Minerals in the soil the grapes grow in are often expressed in the wine.
- Climate: Warmer temperatures cause grapes to ripen quicker, but ideally temperatures will drop at night so that the plants stop the photosynthesis process and preserve freshness and acidity.
A note on Texas wine regions:
Like most things about wine, determining the wine regions of Texas is a mixture of art and science. The state has eight recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which are registered by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
However, a person can apply for an AVA designation by proving it is a geographically distinct region regardless of, say, production size. The Texas portion of the Mesilla Valley AVA (shared with New Mexico) has one winery with 5 acres of vineyards, while the 1,000 planted acres of the Texas Hill Country are now being subdivided within the same AVA. Because AVAs are, to an extent, self-selected, even veteran winemakers often know little about other viticulture areas in Texas beyond the three Hill Country AVAs and the High Plains AVA, where most wine in the state is produced.
These AVAs are important if you want wine that is made entirely with grapes from Texas. Thanks to new legislation that took effect in September 2021, wines designated as being from a particular AVA consist of 100 percent Texas-grown grapes — as opposed to prior regulations, which stipulated that only 85 percent of grapes be grown in the AVA. Wine labels with designations from Texas counties or single vineyards in the state will also be labeled as entirely Texas wines, while wines designated with the unregulated term “for sale in Texas only” could be made with grapes sourced from anywhere.
Rather than relying on AVAs, this guide provides a breakdown of Texas’s key wine-growing regions as determined by the Texas Department of Agriculture, excluding Southeast Texas and the Gulf Coast, which is a relatively low-producing area without AVAs. The remaining four regions are listed in order of decreasing production quantities.
Here’s a drinker’s cheat sheet to everything you need to know about Texas grapes.
High Plains and Panhandle
AVAs: Texas High Plains
General characteristics: savory, mineral, notes of sage
- Cabernet sauvignon
- Chenin blanc
- Cabernet franc
- Muscat canelli
About 73 percent of Texas wine grapes are grown on the Texas High Plains, a flat, arid, high-elevation area. Long, hot summers with cool nights balance grape acidity, and low rainfall decreases the chance of disease. The mineral-rich soil is mostly sandy loam over limestone. More than 75 types of grapes grow on the High Plains, and winemakers often grow their white or rosé varietals there because those wines retail for less than reds (so it makes sense to grow them on land that is cheaper).
AVAs: Texas Hill Country (including Fredericksburg), Bell Mountain
General characteristics: a little juicier than High Plains wines, aromatic
Granite: cola, red fruit, a little bit of anise
Limestone: violets, herbes de Provence
- Cabernet sauvignon
The Texas Hill Country AVA is the third-largest AVA in the United States by size, so there is fairly significant variety within the region. For example, while much of the Hill Country has limestone soil, the Llano Uplift north of Fredericksburg has granite-based soil, which results in a different-tasting profile. Brundrett, who is working to designate the Llano Uplift as a sub-AVA, advises against blending granite-based grapes with limestone-based grapes to maintain their distinct tasting profiles.
In terms of growing grapes, the Hill Country also has a long, hot summer, but it’s much more humid than the High Plains, and the nights don’t get as cold. Regardless, many of the varieties grown on the Plains also do very well in the Hill Country. True to its name, it also has lots of rolling hills.
AVAs: Mesilla Valley, Escondido Valley, Texas Davis Mountains
General characteristics: lush, robust reds; full-bodied fruit; whites with zippy acidity
- Cabernet sauvignon
Mesilla Valley, which spans Texas and New Mexico, is home to the first vineyards in the United States, planted by Spanish missionaries in the 1600s. The climate in West Texas is predictably dry and hot, with calcium-rich soil that lends minerality. The Davis Mountains AVA has the highest elevation in the state, with volcanic soil and a more temperate climate that results in more-complex fruit.
General characteristics: big reds, crisp whites
- Blanc du Bois
- Black Spanish
- Petite Sirah
- Sauvignon blanc
An emerging region in terms of Texas wines, this AVA was designated in 2006. Its claim to fame is that in the 1880s, local viticulturist Thomas Volney Munson created vines resistant to an insect that was decimating grapes by grafting European vines to native rootstock. Because of this, almost all wines around the world now use American rootstock.
Texoma soil is silty loam and clay. Because the region is relatively humid, vines can be prone to disease and pests.
Example wines: Although there are producers within North Texas, the region is still establishing itself.
Special thanks to Maura Sharp at Sharp Family Vineyards, Susan Auler at Fall Creek Vineyards, Ryan Poulos at Zin Valley Vineyards, Jim Evans at Lost Oak Winery, and the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association.