The Tempranillo Project: Can Spain’s Noble Grape Find a Home in the United States?

Spanish Tempranillo (“Tinta Roriz” in Portugal) has long since been labeled the “noble” grape of the Iberian Peninsula.  It is, in many ways, Spain’s darling grape and one the country’s most popular contributions to the world’s best indigenous varieties, although Spain is also responsible for introducing Garnacha (Grenache), Cariñena (Carignan), and Monastell (Mourvèdre) to the world wine scene. As is the case with anything else (cars, technology, etc.), when you do something well, others want to try their hand at it, too (not necessarily a bad thing). Fortunately, wine is most certainly no exception.

ca tempranillo

California Tempranillo Vineyards

Known by a multitude of synonyms around Spain (i.e. Tinto Fino, Tinta del Pais, Tinto de Toro, Ull de Llebre, and Cencibel, amongst others), Tempranillo is an early-ripening, thick-skinned, medium-to-full-bodied, black variety used to make a wide range of red wines (depending on oak usage). The grape thrives in continental climates (most notably Rioja and Ribera del Duero) where the cool climate promotes acidity and elegance, while the heat produces high sugar levels and depth of color. Tempranillo wines tend to be ruby red in color with aromas and flavors of red fruits, tobacco, leather, and herb. But Tempranillo is no longer just a Spanish variety.

The growing interest and popularity of unique and unfamiliar grape varieties continues to confront the American wine consumer. As a Spanish wine writer, I have long since had a fascination with the tremendous work done in Spain around the Tempranillo grape, including how different regions grow, age, and produce their wines. As the United States makes great strides in the production of this grape, I felt it was time to taste what we have to offer. First, though, a little background is in order.

Oregon Tempranillo Grapes

Oregon Tempranillo Grapes

The grape was brought to California by University of California professor Frederic Bioletti in 1905. Unfortunately, due to the looming approach of Prohibition it did not receive much attention. Additionally, it was planted in the Central Valley where a much less than ideal climate existed for this variety. As a result, Tempranillo (then known by the name “Valdepeñas”) was used as a blending grape for jug wine. It was not until the 1980’s that California Tempranillo production began to flourish and plantings were made into more appropriate areas (cooler climates and higher altitudes). The High Plains and Hill Country of Texas have been compared to those of northern Spain, and Tempranillo has been so well received in Texas it is now considered the state’s signature variety. Additionally, cooler climates such as Southern Oregon’s Umpqua and Rogue Valleys and California’s Santa Barbara region have proven excellent production areas while some Central Valley areas (in particular, Lodi and Paso Robles) have found success despite the fairly warm climate (the differences exist mainly in the style of wine produced).

My curiosity of US-produced Tempranillo fueled my desire to learn and taste more. Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to taste a number of Tempranillo wines from around the U.S. What follows is an introduction to some of these producers as well as brief tasting notes. Also included are the wine’s retail price along with my rating (the wines are listed in vintage order).

  • 2009 Abacela Estate Tempranillo (Umpqua Valley, OR) – 91/100 ($40) More than 20 years ago Earl and Hilda Jones pondered why there was no high qualify Tempranillo wine produced in the US. With science guiding the couple, they settled in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley which has characteristics of Spain’s top Tempranillo-producing regions, Ribera del Duero and Rioja. This wine is very reminiscent of Rioja’s softer expression of Tempranillo and exudes black fruit, blueberry, and strawberry. On the palate, blackberry and dark chocolate are present with firm tannins. This wine is delicious now but can also benefit from cellaring. (abacela.com)
  • 2009 Snake River Winery Tempranillo (Snake River, OR) – 85/100 ($19) Along the Snake River Tempranillo has found a home. Hot, dry summers mirror many old-world wine-growing regions, the Rhone and the Duero (Duoro) Valley, in particular. Although Snake River Winery is located in Idaho, the Tempranillo is sourced from the Oregon side of the river. More in the tradition of lighter, fruit-forward wines from Rioja and Castilla La Mancha, this wine shows flavors of plum, black cherry, herbs, and coffee. With medium tannins and a short finish, this wine is a pleasant and inexpensive introduction to Tempranillo from an area where most Americans had no idea it was grown. (snakeriverwinery.com)
  • 2010 Irwin Family Vineyards Piedra Roja Block 22 Tempranillo (Sierra Foothills, CA) – 93/100 ($28) Wow. Located in one of California’s oldest wine growing regions, the Tempranillo sourced from here is excellent. Derek Irwin, who spent his early childhood in Madrid, has an affinity for Spanish varieties; and let me tell you, he does them VERY well! Exuding aromas andflavors of red fruit (plum and cherry) and ripe boysenberry along with hints of dark chocolate, tobacco, and mineral, this 100% Tempranillo has balanced acidity and ripe tannins. This wine is absolutely delicious and the most reminiscent Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero (and even Toro). It is no surprise this was my favorite wine of the tasting. (irwinfamilyvineyards.com)
  • 2011 Twisted Oak Zilch Tempranillo (Calaveras County, CA) – 91/100 ($32) Jeff Stai (also known as “El Jefe”) is the owner of Twisted Oak Winery and has been producing Spanish- and Rhone-based wines for about 15 years. And trust me, the boss definitely knows what he is doing! Everything about this winery is a bit “off” (in a good way!). The Zilch Tempranillo pays homage to California wines which show “Reserve” on their label – a term which means absolutely NOTHING in California (hence, “Zilch”). This 100% Tempranillo has aromas of strawberries and red fruits along with spice and black pepper. On the palate, are dark fruits (blackberry and black cherry) with those same spices. An absolutely delicious wine from Calaveras and one worth seeking out. (twistedoak.com)
  • 2012 Harney Lane Tempranillo (Lodi, CA) – 91/100 ($26) Lodi has become a hot-bed of Spanish varieties with a number of wineries producing excellent Tempranillo wine (Bokisch and Riaza also produce great Tempranillo in this area). I have had a couple of opportunities to visit Harney Lane over the past few years and have been impressed by the effort given to produce a Spanish-style wine worthy of the grape’s origins. This wine shows baked plum, red fruits, leather, and tobacco and has firm tannins with medium acidity and a medium-long finish. This wine is aged in European Oak for 19 months and can certainly lay down for a few years more. One of my favorites of the tasting. (http://harneylane.com/)
  • 2013 Abacela Barrel Select Tempranillo (Umpqua Valley, OR) – 88/100 ($32) Abacela’s flagship Tempranillo does not disappoint. The 17th release, this young wine shows notes of blackberry, mocha, spices, and smoke with well-defined tannins and a medium plus finish. Approachable now, this will likely just keep getting better over the next few years. (abacela.com)
  • 2013 Madrigal Family Winery Tempranillo (Napa Valley/Calistoga, CA) – 91/100 ($45) Chris Madrigal brings a long history of family farming to his Calistoga winery. Producing their first wine (Petite Sirah) in 1995, this winery is clearly a leader in its class. The Madrigal Tempranillo has red fruit and earthy, smoky aromas on the nose with red cherry, strawberry, and chocolate on the palate. Another one of my favorite wines and one worth seeking out. (madrigalfamilywinery.com)
  • 2013 Robert Renzoni Vineyards Tempranillo (Temecula Valley, CA) – 86/100 ($36) Located on the De Portola Wine Trail in Southern California’s Temecula Valley, the Renzoni family has been producing wines for over 100 years (first in Italy and then in California). Southern California still has some work to do, but the Renzoni Tempranillo is a step up from others I have tasted in the Valley. With hints of violets, spice, black currant, tobacco, and leather, this wine has medium plus tannins and a fairly lengthy finish. All in all, not a bad Tempranillo, given the wine’s origin. (robertrenzonivineyards.com)
  • 2014 Pedernales Cellars Texas Tempranillo (TX) – 88/100 ($20) Yes, Texas. Pedernales produces high quality, world-class Tempranillo wine grown in the Texas Hill Country and the Texas High Plains. The Texas Tempranillo sources grapes from both regions, whose climate is ideal for producing great wine. This wine shows notes of cherry and red fruits along with hints of dark chocolate and spice. On the palate, an earthy tone dominates with red fruits and strong tannins leading into a medium finish. A great and inexpensive introduction to Tempranillo from the Lone Star State. (pedernalescellars.com)

The wine world continues to change and grow as indigenous varieties once found halfway across the world pop up near home. I will always be a Hispanophile and likely always prefer Tempranillo from “the motherland,” but I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with what is happening here. And from the looks (and tastes) of things, Tempranillo has a very bright and lengthy future in the US.

Life is short. Drink Spanish wine!