Written By Russ Kane

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

The one thing that was obvious from the start of the meeting was that everyone reveling in what was referred to as “the premier white grape of Texas.” If you don’t know what grape I’m talking about, it’s about time you did. Once you know it, this will make a great trivia question to stump your wine geek friends. For a hint, it is the only white grape to make it in the top five of grapes currently produced in Texas, and it is not Viognier, the one most people assume is the top Texas produced white grape.

The answer? Blanc Du Bois, or as many in Texas now call it, simply “Blanc” or abbreviated it “BDB.” It is currently the fifth most grown grape in Texas, after some well-regarded reds – Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Merlot and Mourvèdre. Viognier makes it’s showing down at number nine. If you’re wondering why, you’ve never heard of this grape, it might be because other whites like Chardonnay have dominated the market for far too long.

Blanc Du Bois Grapes Mid-Harvest – Photo Credit: VintageTexas.com

Blanc Du Bois is so successful in Texas because it is a French American hybrid developed in Florida by a Texan, John Mortensen. He made it for hot, humid climes like Texas. It also has resistance to Pierce’s Disease, the nemesis of southern wine regions in America like Texas. It can also be grown over large expanses of east and south Texas and the Gulf Coast where European Vitis vinifera wine grapes have difficulty growing.

The success of Blanc Du Bois is also associated with the work of two friends in the Texas wine industry, Raymond Haak of Haak Vineyards and Winery in Santa Fe and Jerry Watson of Austin County Vineyards, a wine grower just west of Houston. Over the past two decades, Haak and Watson have discovered the essentials on how to successfully grow and harvest Texas Blanc. They have also collaborated on how to ferment and vinify it into the wide range of wines in styles from dry to sweet, still and sparkling, and even barrel aged in the styles of white Port and Madeira.  Such wines can be found at Haak Vineyards and Winery which regularly receive gold medals for their Blanc in national and international competitions, including the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo™’s Rodeo Uncorked!® International Wine Competition. Texas Hill Country wineries like William Chris Vineyards and Lewis Wines also make wines with Blanc Du Bois.

There are also Texas wines being made using new Pierce’s Disease (PD) resistant grape varieties that are known collectively as “the Walker varieties”. These were developed by Andy Walker, Ph. D, and fellow researchers at U.C. Davis in California. They were produced by cross breeding Vitis vinifera (European) wine grapes with Vitis arizonica, a particular American and Texas native grape.  The V. arizonica grape has a single gene that gives it resistance to PD. As a result of this crossbreeding, the genetic mix of these new wine-making hybrids are made up of more than 95% V. vinifera and usually less than 5% V. arizonica. These grapes have recently been commercially released in Texas to vineyards through nurseries.

After extensive genetic and organoleptic testing, the new hybrids released come in both white (Blanc) and red (Noir) varieties. The whites have been given the names Caminante Blanc and Ambulo Blanc, with the reds named Camminare Noir, Errante Noir and Paseante Noir.

Ambulo Blanc is reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc with a light straw color and limey citrus characteristics whereas Caminante Blanc has floral aromas with flavors of green apple, melon, lychee, and pineapple. Camminare Noir carries bright red fruit nuances and good tannic structure. Errante Noir is reminiscent of plummy Merlot with a dense mid-palate and balanced acidity and tannins. Lastly, Paseante Noir is suggestive of Rhone-style Syrah with blackberry, olive and herbal notes.

Paseante Noir grapes, one of the new Walker grape varieties - Photo credit: Amy Quinton

Texas wineries such as Messina Hof and Carter Creek Resort among others have started to experiment with these new winemaking grape varieties. They will likely begin by using the wines to blend with more conventional vinifera wines and then work them into single varietal wine releases as the names become better recognized.

Dr. Russell Kane is a researcher, wine writer, book author and blogger with articles and tasting notes that have appeared in local, regional and national publications over the past 20 years. Russ’s bestselling book, The Wineslinger Chronicles: Texas on the Vine, was released in 2012. He has also published a pictorial history and trail guide of the Texas Hill Country Wineries. His blog, VintageTexas.com, is the longest running blog commentary on the Texas Wine Industry.

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