Expectations are for the 2023 Texas wine grape season to produce a quality vintage despite some challenges here and there, said Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.
AgriLife Extension viticulturists located around the state, including Daniel Hillin in the Texas High Plains, Fran Pontasch in the Gulf Coast region, Michael Cook in North Texas and Brianna Hoge in the Hill Country, shared their assessments of the 2023 wine grape season and ongoing harvest.
Overall, it appears to be a mixed bag of yield results, but statewide reports on wine grape quality are mostly good to exceptional.
Gulf Coast wine grapes
Harvest 2023 was winding down in southern and coastal areas of Texas.
The season has produced a good vintage for the Gulf Coast region, Pontasch said. Yields were higher than expected, and the grape quality has been exceptional. Gulf Coast vineyards avoided seasonal rains before harvest that can threaten to rot grape clusters.
Most wine grapes in the Gulf Coast are hot climate varieties and fared well in the Texas heat, Pontasch said. The drought and heat also helped keep humidity-loving fungal diseases away this season.
Blanc du bois typically starts the harvest season for all Texas vineyards. The first blanc du bois harvest occurred over Memorial Day weekend in the Rio Grande Valley, then continued north through June and into July. Other varieties harvested were the new Pierce’s disease resistant “Walker” varieties, lomanto, herbemont, blanc du soleil, vermentino, tannat, sagrantino, merlot, tempranillo and others. Black Spanish/lenoir and muscadines are the last grapes to mature and are being harvested now.
Grape vine shoots were beginning to turn brown, signaling hardening and end to the growing season, Pontasch said.
“Thankfully, harvest comes early in vineyards along the Gulf Coast, so grapevines have been harvested and no longer — or soon will no longer — bear their crop during our present drought and heat dome,” she said.
North Texas wine grapes
Cook said harvest was in full swing in North Texas. Red grape harvest is nearing completion, while white grape harvest is complete. He estimated 70% of vineyards would be picked by this weekend.
A few “new” varieties for North Texas, including picpoul blanc, camminare noir and paseante noir, had their first harvest this season, Cook said.
Vines in North Texas eased into the season as spring brought rains and mild temperatures, which helped healthy growth, he said. Some vineyards experienced spring frost, hail and even tornado damage while others experienced ideal spring growing conditions.
Black rot and downy mildew were particularly problematic later in the season due to the wet and mild spring weather, but many producers were able to maintain proactive spray fungicide regimens to combat the disease, Cook said.
Mother Nature turned up the heat as anticipated but began at a more normal time compared to last year’s 100-degree temperatures in May, he said. Unfortunately, more than 20 days of 100-plus degree days in a row with very warm nights and no rain hastened ripening at a critical time in fruit development, which stalled Brix levels at around 18-20 for many.
“Yields reports coming in so far ranged from light to moderate to bumper, and although sugar counts were lower, pH and acids were ideal,” he said. “While yields varied, overall quality was very good, and hopefully that translates into good vintage.”
The Hill Country
Hoge said conditions during the season were not too different from North Texas.
The majority of the Hill Country is harvested, with a few stragglers coming off this weekend and next week, she said. Conditions were much better this season compared to the previous growing season when a lack of fall and winter was followed by severe drought.
Bud break was early this year by about two weeks, and while the spring rains did help the vines recover a bit from last year’s drought, they also brought an epidemic of black rot to the Hill Country.
Some vineyards were able to mitigate disease pressure, but several reported major outbreaks of black rot that impacted 60% of the crop, Hoge said. Drier, hotter conditions began mid-season, and temperatures have been relentlessly hot since.
Arid conditions reduced disease pressure, but heat has pushed vines to speedier fruit maturation, she said. By mid-to-late July, several wineries were receiving grape tonnage day after day, so harvest itself was a quick process.
In some vineyards, Brix levels were low, but many vineyards were reporting grapes with normal sugar levels, and pH levels were excellent this year in most vineyards.
“Overall, we’re looking at an excellent crop load this year, as compared to last year,” Hoge said. “And with any luck, we will get some fall rains to allow for a recovery period between harvest and dormancy, setting us up for hopeful success next season.”
The High Plains
Hillin said harvest was just getting underway with early reds and whites but that much of the crop continued to ripen under hot, dry conditions.
Cooler late-spring temperatures and sporadic rainfall helped vines get off to a good start. Fruit sets and canopy growth were excellent, but severe, sporadic storms brought pea-sized to baseball-sized hail that damaged vines and fruit.
Some vineyards were completely defoliated by heavy hail while others fared better, Hillin said. Most vines in the High Plains are protected by hail netting, but he estimated about 10% of fruit was lost to spring and summer storms.
Conditions became hot and dry during much of the growing season, with high daytime and nighttime temperatures. Hillin said around 44 wine grape varieties were planted in the High Plains this season, including some new heat-tolerant varieties, mostly from arid regions in Spain and Italy, that were being tested by growers.
Drier conditions in the High Plains lead to fewer pest and disease issues than in other Texas regions, but Hillin said pest pressure, including stink bugs, was higher in certain locations this season.
Hillin said growers in the High Plains are very in tune with how to manage vineyards because they have extensive experience farming multiple crops in the region. Producers also have the infrastructure and plans in place to manage vineyards effectively and communicate with each other in ways that translate into better outcomes.
“It’s hard to put a number on things, but most vineyards look good in tonnage and quality,” he said. “There are so many different varieties that ripen at different times, and even that varies according to the way they’re managed. We will know more in a month, but generally, very good.”
AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:
The district was in severe drought with persistent hot and dry weather conditions. Soil moisture levels were very short. There was zero significant rainfall. Temperatures remained over 100 degrees during the day. Native and irrigated pecan orchards were affected by heat stress, causing yield losses. Cotton plants also suffered, and bolls were opening while still small. Corn and hay harvests continued but slowed down. With the exception of a few irrigated fields, pastures and meadows were in very poor condition. Stock tanks and lake levels were low and grass fires increased. Due to the poor pasture conditions and lack of forage to graze, livestock diets were being supplemented. Livestock were in fair to good condition.
Extreme fire danger was a concern across the district and will continue to be until substantial rain falls. Several counties reported wildfires; fortunately they were mostly contained or completely put out. The prolonged heat has taken its toll on pastures and cultivated crops. Cotton acres were especially hurting. Most of the district was reporting severe infestations of grasshoppers, and some areas were starting to see more blister bugs as well. Cattle were being fed hay and supplements because of the lack of grazing.
Excessive heat and lack of moisture continued to exacerbate the drought. All areas needed rainfall. The dry weather was good for producers during cotton harvest. Yields thus far were mixed with some reporting below average yields but most reporting better than expected outcomes. Rice harvest was about half complete, and corn harvest was nearly done. Rangeland and pasture conditions continued to deteriorate. Grasses were becoming dry and crunchy. Livestock continued to look better than expected in most cases. Cattle market prices were still at historic highs. Livestock inventory numbers were shrinking as some ranchers were feeding hay. Hay production had halted. Many beef producers were purchasing crop residue hay from other areas. Ponds in many areas were dry, and there was a lot of attention being directed toward making sure water troughs were functioning. Commercial and homeowner pecan trees were shedding nuts despite irrigation.
Drought conditions persisted and worsened across the district. Hot, dry weather dried down moisture levels in the soil, and slowed or stopped hay production. Subsoil and topsoil conditions were very short to short. Pond and creek water levels were drastically lower. Pasture and rangeland conditions were very poor to poor. Gregg County reported grass fires. Cattle prices remained strong and sale volumes were high. Producers were culling herds hard due to strong markets and drought conditions. Livestock were in fair to good condition with some supplemental feeding taking place.
Dry conditions continued across the district with a few spotty showers. Temperatures were above 100 for multiple days with little relief in sight. Nighttime temperatures were not below 80 degrees, which was not allowing crops to rest between 100-degree daytime temperatures. Producers who planted dryland cotton early expected to make a crop, but those who planted later had not received enough rain needed for a good crop. Irrigation systems were going strong across the district. Irrigated cotton fields were in good to excellent condition. Corn was doing well. Pumpkin growers were treating insects as the plants started to grow fruit. Cattle were in good condition.
The district was very hot and dry for the week with temperatures reaching 100-plus degrees. Some areas received some rainfall that ranged from 0.5-1 inch. Most counties reported short to adequate soil moisture with some reports of very short moisture. Lightning from the storms caused a few wildfires. Producers were applying manure and compost. Silage harvest started with some fields being chopped early. Corn was doing well under irrigation, but sorghum was behind schedule. Haying and baling was going on with some producers baling weedy fields. Pastures and rangelands dried out quickly. Livestock were in good condition as producers began to feed hay along with supplements on a small scale. The overall condition of crops, pasture and rangeland was poor to fair.
Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to good, and topsoil was very short to short in most counties. Temperatures ranged from 100-110 degrees, resulting in burn ban warnings and signs of severe drought. The hot, dry conditions were starting to speed crop maturity and slow grass growth. Many counties needed moisture. Soybeans looked heat stressed. Forage and hay fields were beginning to show heat stress as well. Cattle and other livestock were in good condition, but most were consuming a considerable amount of water to stay cool.
Temperatures were 104-110 degrees in the lower basin areas. Widespread rainfall and cooler conditions were reported in the Davis Mountain area. Some areas received up to 2 inches of rainfall. The district was in desperate need of rain to improve rangeland and soil moisture conditions. Subsoil moisture remained short to adequate. Cotton conditions were declining rapidly due to extreme heat and drought. With most fields at peak water demand, growers could not provide enough water and plants were shedding quite a few squares and small bolls, and yield potential was decreasing rapidly. Heat stress and lack of rain set sorghum behind. Corn harvest was beginning, and yields were not as good as expected. Melon harvest continued but yields were starting to decline. Sunflowers and pumpkins were growing. Pastures were completely bare except for a few patches of broomweed. Livestock producers were supplementing with hay and feed, and cattle were losing some body condition. Livestock were eating mesquite beans. Some wildlife had moved into town to graze on homeowners’ lawns.
Temperature highs were over 100 degrees daily. Conditions remained very dry in most areas. Several fires were reported. Some areas received 0.5 to more than 1 inch of rainfall. Producers continued to prepare fields for wheat, but rain will be needed before planting. Some hay cutting and baling continued, but most production ended due to dry conditions. Rangeland and pasture conditions were poor and continued to worsen. Stock tanks were declining, and some were dry. Livestock were stressed by heat, and some cows were having difficulty calving in the intense heat. Most producers continued to feed livestock or sell them. Livestock body conditions were holding, and market prices were steady to higher with good demand reported. Row crops were struggling in the hot, dry conditions. Cotton fields were blooming, but plant growth was limited. Dryland and irrigated cotton fields were struggling, and yield projections were declining. Corn and sorghum harvests finished with mixed results on yields. Pecan orchards were suffering even where irrigation was available.
Temperatures were above 100 degrees daily, and the lack of rain continued to be a concern. Soil moisture levels were very short to adequate. Burn bans continued, and fire risks were high. Some grassfires were reported. Ponds were drying up quickly, and some producers started feeding hay. Hay production was at a standstill due to drought. Most producers were predicting a hay shortage for this fall/winter, and prices were increasing. Most producers were already feeding hay and cubes because of the lack of forage. High volumes of cattle were going to market, and prices were holding firm. Corn harvest continued with yields holding strong with some reports ranging from 140-180 bushels per acre. Irrigated cotton was healthy, but non-irrigated was showing signs of stress. Cotton harvest was expected to be a month later than usual in some areas. Rice harvest continued, but some producers worried ratoon crops may dry out before water is reapplied. Trees were dying due to drought conditions.
Record-breaking high temperatures and dry conditions continued. Over 100 acres were burned by a wildfire near Bastrop. Drought conditions and extreme heat have caused several major fires in Caldwell County as well. Hay production had mostly stopped, and supplemental feeding became more widespread. Sorghum harvest was complete, and corn harvest continued with average to above average yields reported. Irrigated cotton fields were doing well. Pastures continued to decline, and trees were shutting down and shedding leaves in the harsher conditions. Pastures were extremely dry, and producers were culling herds deeper and deeper. Livestock were in fair condition. Cattle, sheep and goat markets remained strong even with the lack or forage. Weaning should help ease some grazing pressure. Producers were supplementing both livestock and wildlife heavily.
Conditions remained hot and dry, and topsoil and subsoil moisture was very short. Most corn and sorghum fields were harvested with some very late planted fields remaining. Cotton fields without irrigation were suffering due to the extreme heat and dry conditions. Cotton harvest was in full swing in some areas. Poor cotton yields were expected in many areas. Peanut crops were under irrigation. Corn, grain sorghum, sunflowers and soybeans were harvested. Citrus and sugarcane continued to receive irrigation. Watermelon and cantaloupe harvests continued. Producers were baling irrigated Bermuda grass fields. Grain stubble was being harvested and baled. Fieldwork was underway for next season’s crop. Pastures were in poor condition unless irrigated. Rangeland was in very poor to poor condition. Hay bales were being trucked around the district, and prices were $70-$80 per round bale. Cattle producers were supplementing with hay and protein. Many ponds were completely dry, and some producers were hauling water for livestock and wildlife. Higher volumes of cattle were being sold at auctions, and prices were steady. Many coveys of quail were spotted on ranches. Fawns were spotted and wildlife were staying close to water sources. A good dove season was predicted, and hunters were spotted hauling water and supplemental feed for wildlife on ranches they hunt.