Return of the Natives

By Beth Goulart
Photography by Doug Gaidry III

Franklin Houser wasn’t much of a wine drinker during his four decades as a trial attorney in San Antonio. But now, as he tastes the products of his Dry Comal Creek winery, it’s obvious he’s acquired a taste for it. “That’s really a nice wine,” he says, bypassing the often fussy terms experts employ to describe wines—a habit that makes Houser somewhat unusual among winemakers. Also unusual is the Black Spanish grape he’s chosen to grow. It’s one of a trio of little-known grape varieties producing great wines at the hands of several pioneering Texas winemakers.

Experts don’t unanimously agree on the precise genetic heritage of Black Spanish (also known as “Lenoir” and a handful of other names), but they do know it’s not a variety of the species Vitis vinifera, to which the vast majority of wine grapes belong. Cabernet, chardonnay and merlot are all vinifera, as are pinot noir and pinot gris. Even recently popularized grapes like viognier and malbec are vinifera. In fact, just about every wine on the grocery-store shelf is made from vinifera grapes. Conventional winemaking wisdom dictates that any reliably marketable wine be made from it, regardless of where the wine is made. Texas’s best-known, most widely acclaimed wineries—Becker, Fall Creek, Llano Estacado, to name a few—made their names by producing wine from vinifera grapes.

In other words, vinifera is the time-tested star of the wine industry worldwide. Believed to have originated in Transcaucasia—where the countries of Georgia and Armenia now lie—the species, according to carbon-dating, was already in cultivation by the 4th millennium BC. Eventually, it is thought, vinifera spread throughout Europe and around the Mediterranean through the efforts of the Phoenicians, the Greeks and finally the Romans. More recently, in relative terms, Cortés imported it to the New World during the 16th century.

Looking at the Texas wine regions today, it’s easy to see why they might seem a suitable home for vinifera. The rolling limestone terrain of the Hill Country looks a lot like parts of France’s wine-famous Rhône Valley, and our summer temperatures soar like those of Southern Italy. But when it comes to terroir (a French word used to sum up the environment in which a grapevine grows), obvious characteristics like terrain and climate don’t account for everything. In the New World (and in Texas and the other Gulf states especially), vinifera faces a deadly endemic plague called Pierce’s disease.

Most growers don’t call it that casually, preferring the disarmingly jaunty acronym, PD. Pierce’s disease happens when an insect called a sharpshooter chomps into a grape leaf and transmits a bacterium it picked up from some other plant. The bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, multiplies and spreads through the grapevine, ultimately clogging the plant’s system for transferring water from the roots to the shoots. While the bacteria proliferate in the plant—and likely before the grower has detected their presence—other sharpshooters are snacking on that vine and then others. Before the grower blinks an observant eye, the entire vineyard can become infected. And with vinifera, a vine infected is a vine lost. There is no cure.

This isn’t the first time vinifera has clashed with elements of the New World. The previous setting was 19th-century France, where that nation’s long-established wine industry nearly succumbed.

Infused with the Victorian-era love of botany, Europeans imported tons of plants, including rooted grapevines, from North America. Soon after, a mysterious disease began killing vines in the southern Rhône valley, then more broadly throughout France. Creative solutions were procured—from anointing roots with white wine to burying a live toad under the vine—but researchers finally discovered that an insect transported inadvertently from America was to blame. Ironically, American vines appeared immune to its ravages.

A Texan nurseryman and vine breeder named T.V. Munson helped develop a system of grafting vinifera vines to native American roots to outwit the root-feeding aphid, now known as phylloxera. Today, the vast majority of vinifera grown in France has American roots (literally), and is resistant to phylloxera, which itself has spread around the planet.

Unlike phylloxera, PD doesn’t limit itself to a vine’s roots, instead setting into the whole plant. Total-vineyard loss by PD happens so frequently in these parts that many growers just expect it from time to time. Xylella fastidiosa is indigenous to the Gulf states, and its northern reaches seem to be stretching, perhaps due to warmer winters. In California, it decimated the wine industry in the southern part of that state in the early 1900s, but its impact on modern-day wine country has been limited. Here in Texas, growers do what they can to prevent it—eliminating other plants (that might draw sharpshooters) by mechanical means or by spraying herbicides, and administering an insecticide called “Admire” via drip-irrigation systems. Most importantly, if a single vine has a telltale leaf that’s browning around the edges, the grower uproots it and its nearest neighbors in hopes of stemming PD’s spread.

Angela Moench thought there must be a better way. A native of Australia, the pragmatic Moench comes from a winemaking family in the Barossa Valley. Following in those footsteps, she planted a vineyard on a Lake Travis plot she and her husband Howard owned. Unlike so many new winemakers who rush in, Moench did her homework before finally selecting a PD-tolerant grape variety called Norton for her Stone House Vineyard.

Norton, like Black Spanish, answers to other names—folks in Missouri, for instance, are more likely to call it Cynthiana. Likewise, its pedigree is less than straightforward. All agree that it’s derived from a species called Vitis aestivalis that originated in Eastern America, though some think it might be the result of cross-breeding with other species, too. And while folks have been turning Norton grapes into wine since at least the 1850s, it has suffered the bias that plagues all non-vinifera varieties—the curse of the unfamiliar.

Still, Norton is fast becoming the darling of some wine drinkers in-the-know. “The more Norton I drink,” says Texas’s first master sommelier, Guy Stout, “the more I want.” Norton produces a big red wine with bright fruit flavor balanced with tannins, but its high natural acidity makes it a more difficult wine to make than, say, a cabernet sauvignon or merlot.

Knowing this, Moench hired an experienced winemaker, fellow Aussie Vicky-Louise Bartier, to create Stone House’s Claros, a 2007 San Diego International Wine Competition gold-medal winner. In his book The Wine Roads of Texas, local wine expert Wes Marshall describes Claros as a “divine juxtaposition of Burgundy-style acidity and Sonoma Zinfandel-style richness. Wrap in a little bit of the interesting and idiosyncratic Norton flavor and you get a very nice drink.”

Stone House isn’t the only label representing the Lone Star State in national and international competitions. More Texas wines are gaining recognition, and honors, as the industry grows. Twenty years ago, there were 27 wineries in the state. Today there are 160 that sell more than two million gallons of wine each year. Four thousand acres of grapes now grow under the Texan sun, but 99 percent of those grapes are vinifera, according to a 2007 economic impact study. That’s 99 percent of the grape acreage in the state that’s susceptible to utter devastation by PD.

Grafting worked in the case of phylloxera because the pathogen affects only the vine’s roots. In the case of PD, grafting doesn’t help. Cross-breeding, however, has had some success. In 1987, researchers at the University of Florida released a new variety created via multiple crosses of vinifera and native grapes. The resulting variety, blanc du bois, combines a native vine’s tolerance of PD with a vinifera’s fruit qualities to produce a dry, light white wine.

Since then, several Texas vintners, as well as those in other states, have planted blanc du bois with success. Raymond Haak of Haak Vineyards in Santa Fe (TX) makes a dry version that consistently scores well in contests around the country. Closer to Austin, Fredericksburg’s Chisholm Trail Winery makes an excellent dry blanc du bois called “Belle Star.”

Like blanc du bois, the Black Spanish that Franklin Houser grows likely emerged from a cross-breeding of vinifera and native American vines. Yet, while it enjoys a solid reputation for making very good port-style wines, many still assume that it can’t yield a palatable table wine.

The same is true for nearly all of America’s two dozen or so native grape species. When describing wines made from these grapes, tasters often resort to the term “foxy,” a you-know-it-when-you-taste-it flavor that The Oxford Companion to Wine defines as “closer to animal fur than fruit, flowers or any other aroma associated with fine wine,” and “deeply pejorative.” The only native grape whose wine consistently dodges the term is Norton.

But Houser’s Black Spanish isn’t foxy, either. The 2006 vintage that he’s selling at the winery now is almost black in color and extremely rich and deep in flavor. “It sells very nicely,” he says. “We’ve got people, they don’t care what the price is. They just want the wine.”

Researchers are working to find new tools to fight PD, but with no cure on the horizon, a return to native grapes, or hybrids bred from natives, is an old-fashioned tool that’s working well for local winemakers who’ve bowed out of the fight to defend imported vinifera vines from endemic pests.

“I decided I’m not going to try to sweep back the ocean with a broom,” says Houser, who gave up on vinifera after losing his whole vineyard to PD for the second time in 1998. He experimented with Norton, but found its grapes too low-yielding due to, he believes, his vineyard's basic soils.

A near-perfect season has brought a bumper crop to Dry Comal Creek's Black Spanish vines. The bunches of grapes hang heavy, and the leaves are big and green all the way to the edges, without any trace of Pierce’s disease. For Houser and the other pioneering vintners forging new ground with old grape lineages, going native seems to be working.