Supply and demand is a wondrous and beautiful thing. Guarding the secret of a juicy wine discovery allows you to skip to the store and snatch it up for practically nothing. It worked this way pre-Sideways, when you could practically steal high quality domestic Pinot Noir, but then people, mesmerized by the flick’s romance, flocked to this formerly humble wine and promptly upgraded it to the overpriced shelf. But, shhhh… like an underground indie flick, there’s a little-known, up-and-coming grape that probably won’t stay long on the downlow: Tempranillo.
As the fourth most widely planted grape on the planet, it’s certainly not new but it’s been veiled by Spanish regional names like Rioja and Ribera del Duero since, well, eons. And, like a Spanish James Bond, it assumes numerous grape aliases: Cencibel, Ojo, Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais, Tinto de Torro, Ull de Llebre, and Tinta Roriz… not sure why there are as many personalities as Sybil but the name I’m sticking with (since I can pronounce it) is Tempranillo [TEM prah NEE yo]. This indigenous grape is a staple in Spain but I believe a New World unearthing is upon us. In California, Washington and Oregon, growers planted these dogged, time-tested vines a while back that are now bearing fruit. Really frickin’ good fruit too.
According to Tempranillo Advocates, Producers and Amigos Society (TAPAS – a trade organization formed to spread the word about this grape in North America), the first Tempranillo vines destined for fine wine production (read: not jug wines) were planted in Napa in 1992. Then, a 1998 Tempranillo from an Oregon winery, Abacela, won first place at the San Francisco Wine Competition against 19 Spanish competitors. That’s when winemakers and growers perked up and smelled the possibilities.
I actually remember the first time I tried a really tasty California Tempranillo: 2004 Matchbook from Dunnigan Hills near Sacramento. My tasting notes reflect a definite enthusiasm: “Soft, elegant tannins, gushing blackberry, generous, ripe plum, with an edge of smokiness. It’s flirty and muscular but with no hair on its chest. Very impressive for the money ($16).” I gave it a very rare 5-star rating. Thus began my fascination with this grape I didn’t know could thrive outside its native lands.
Around 100 wineries in California, Oregon, Washington and Texas now make Tempranillo. In California, only about 1,000 acres are planted with it. Because of this dearth of fruit, the production is minuscule compared to other varieties (generally less than 400 cases at each winery), but there’s a start for everything, right?
I recently tried a few smaller producers’ Tempranillos: Yorba Wines 2007 Amador, Turkovich Family Wines 2009 Yolo County and Ripken Vineyards 2006 Lodi County. All were solid, full-bodied reds with tamed tannins, displaying varietally-correct ripe plums, red cherries and blackberries (my fave was Yorba). The wines leaned towards higher acidity, making it quite tasty with food like sheep’s milk cheeses (especially Spanish ones like Manchego), brined olives, salty sausages and roasted or grilled meats. Regrettably, these wineries don’t make much of these wines so, if you don’t live near the wineries, you likely can’t get your hands on them… except online. Check their websites (linked in this paragraph).
If the last time you tried Tempranillo was a funky Rioja tasting like dirt scraped from your shoe, give this grape another chance. Things have changed in the New World.