Texas vineyards resilient despite tough 2020

Item File PhotoGrapes at the West Sandy Creek Vineyard Winery Huntsville.

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service viticulture specialists reported early fruiting and overall good wine grape conditions were the norm across most of the state.

But Texas’ top wine grape region expects half its average yield following an early freeze in 2019.

Michael Cook, AgriLife Extension viticulture specialist, Denton, said 2020 presented another unique growing season due to weather in some areas and vineyard and wineries navigating COVID-19.

Harvest was ramping up about 10-14 days earlier than typical, he said.

“Wet and warm weather woke the grapes up early this year, but they are growing very well,” he said. “Some areas of the state had severe issues with frost and hail, but 2020 looks to be another great year for most wine grape growers when it comes to quality and yields.”

Grapes in North Texas

Growers in North Texas were harvesting white varieties and a few reds now and will harvest most reds in coming weeks, he said.

Texas weather was “erratic” for North Texas vineyards with a significantly earlier than average killing frost on Nov. 8, a very wet fall and spring, and an extremely late spring frost between Steph​enville and the Red River on April 16.

Primary shoots and crops of early budding grape varieties such as chardonnay were wiped out where frost occurred, he said. The frost negatively impacted individual growers, but in other areas rain promoted canopy growth and fruit development, and crop quality and quantity were looking good.

Cook said established vines showed more resilience against the fall and spring frosts, but that younger vines in newly planted vineyards or expanded acreage were damaged to the trunk, making vines susceptible to diseases like crown gall.

This was a setback for many new growers as they will have to either rogue and replant infected vines or retrain vines that do not exhibit crown gall infection, to which there is no cure, he said.

Disease pressure remained elevated during the wet spring, but most growers were successful in applying preventative measures during critical times, he said.

“Our main challenge from a management standpoint this year was the cold snaps and some wind,” he said. “The wind damage wasn’t serious, but leaf tatter had growers on edge. It can impact young vines, but mostly it just looked bad and had growers worried it might be something more serious.”

Central Texas grapes

Brianna Crowley, AgriLife Extension viticulturist, Fredericksburg, said vines in Central Texas experienced a standard bud break and no late-spring freeze. Fruit sets were average to above average, she said. Some vines may have required some thinning of fruit.

Vineyard managers also dealt with average disease pressure, including black rot and Phomopsis on vines that weren’t treated soon enough.

Weather patterns delivered average moisture until mid-May, she said. Those last few rain events in May also brought damaging hail.

Crowley said dime-sized to plum-sized hail was reported over multiple days and caused severe damage to individual vineyards.

“It was one of those storms where you can see the distinct lines in the areas it covered,” she said. “You could also see the directionality of the storm row to row. Grapes on one side if the vine were hit hard whereas grapes on the other side had little to no damage.”

Crowley said one vineyard reported losing 60% of its crop while vineyards near Kerrville reported 40%-50% losses despite putting up hail netting. Vineyard managers treated vines after hail to prevent diseases from entering vines via wounds and to promote regrowth.

Drought followed the hailstorms, she said. But the lack of rain has not negatively impacted early varieties being harvested now.

Brix counts, which is the measurement of sugar in fruit, and pH levels have been average to above average, so far, she said. Grape quality at harvest for AgriLife Extension trial plots in Fredericksburg were excellent.

“The pH levels were up due to drought for some varieties, but we had brix counts at 25 and 3.6 pH for others, which is spectacular for winemaking, in those trial plots,” she said. “But overall, I am hearing growers reporting quality grapes. Fruit looked clean where it was properly managed.”

Crowley said growers are waiting for late-season varieties and deeper reds to mature, and that rains generated by Hurricane Hanna, could affect brix and pH levels, especially in southern parts of the state.

Hard times on the High Plains

Daniel Hillin, AgriLife Extension viticulturist, Lubbock, said an early frost last year hit the High Plains wine grape producers hard. He expects 50% or less tonnage from the region that produces 85% of Texas’ wine grapes.

In 2019, cool, wet early season weather turned extremely hot and dry during the summer, leaving the vines stressed while carrying a heavy canopy and cropload. The lack of weather transition followed by intermittent rains also delayed harvest.

Leaves and fruit were still on the vines at some locations when a bud killing frost came early in October, he said. Dormant vines were also exposed to seven or eight hard freezes throughout winter.

“There was a lot of winter injury showing up this year,” he said. “This year’s cropload is a lot lower than normal and spotty. Some plots are doing great while others will need to be completely replaced.”

Hillin said the damages varied from location to location and even by vine variety.

Marketing amid pandemic

On top of crop and vine losses, Texas wine grape growers have been faced with challenges associated with COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings and fluid state regulations on wineries, Cook said.

Wineries and vineyards have struggled through the pandemic but are finding clever ways via social media and delivery and pick-up options to market their wines. Elaborate annual harvest parties have been scaled back or cancelled.

COVID-19 restrictions have impacted retail aspects of vineyards, but most operations have moved employees to manage the grapevines, he said. Smaller groups of workers worked shorter shifts to manage grapevines and during harvest.

“Wineries have been hit really hard by the shutdowns, but the vineyards have never looked better,” Cook said. “It’s been a challenge, but vineyards have gone virtual to survive, and they’re finding creative ways to promote their wines and keep a connection with consumers.”

Hillin said he will be interested to see how the tonnage losses in the High Plains effects wine grape prices. He suspects they will climb, but said COVID-19 may dampen demand following two bumper crop seasons in a row.

“Prices are going to go higher on certain varieties, but it remains to be seen because many wineries have full tanks from the previous year,” he said. “There are different challenges every year. The weather, freeze damage and now the shutdowns. But resiliency doesn’t even begin to describe these growers. As with most things, Texas has some of the best. They are not giving up, and I haven’t heard anyone who is throwing in the towel because of setbacks this season.”