Have you heard of Tempranillo?
For many, this type of grape may seem as foreign as the country it comes from: Spain. But not for long, if some winemakers in southern Oregon have their way.
Tempranillo, a thick-skinned grape capable of creating deep-colored and long-lasting wines, ripens earlier than other varietals. (In fact, the root of Tempranillo, temprano, means "early" in Spanish.) Its shorter growing season makes it ideal for slightly harsher environments like Rioja and Ribera Del Duero in Spain.
The other location this grape seems ideally suited for is southern Oregon, and an increasing number of producers are not only making it an element of their portfolios, but the centerpiece.
"Tempranillo is arguably almost a 'perfect' grape for southern Oregon,” says Les Martin, owner of Red Lily Winery. "While virtually every variety does well here, Tempranillo is particularly well suited because it buds late and ripens early, thus minimizing spring and fall frost issues."
For Martin and his wife Rachael, working with the Spanish grape was a natural choice. They had recently discovered Spanish wines and were inspired by the success of the Abacela winery, which was a trailblazer in introducing the grape to the Oregon market, when they decided to try their hands at Tempranillo.
"Not only did we love Spanish Tempranillo, but it was also something that was relatively unknown in the U.S. at the time. We definitely gravitated toward the idea of doing something more unique and special, and fortunately, Tempranillo was a great fit," explains Martin.
Oregon's foray into Tempranillo can be traced back to 1995. Earl Jones and his wife Hilda, founders of Abacela winery in the Umpqua Valley, are widely credited with the feat. By creating high-quality wines and advocating for the varietal, Jones, considered the "godfather" of Oregon Tempranillo, has convinced many fellow winemakers that Tempranillo shows great promise and can succeed in the region.
Jones also helped to found TAPAS, the Tempranillo Advocates, Consumers and Amigos Society, which promotes the growth of Iberian varieties in the United States. He was the founding president and continues to serve its 100-plus members as a director of the board.
Jones' inspiration? "A long love of Rioja and Ribera Tempranillos with the foods I enjoy."
Currently, the grape is in its infancy in the United States. Producers in Texas, Arizona, Washington and California are also pursuing it with focus and ferocity, but with southern Oregon's climate and Temparanillo's, well, temperament, it might have found its home-away-from home in this section of our state.
2008 Domaine Trouvére, Umpqua Valley ($26): Baked cherry pie, blackberry, fig, mocha, chili pepper, clove and violets
2008 Dominio IV "The Arrow and the Berry," Three Sleeps Vineyard, Columbia Gorge ($25): Black cherry, brambleberry, savory spice, smoke and cinnamon
2007 Dominio IV "The Tango," Three Sleeps Vineyard, Columbia Gorge ($42): Dark chocolate, cola bean, cherry, dark plum with black pepper and sweet herbs
2005 Abacela "Paramour," Umpqua Valley ($90): A blend dominated by Tempranillo with notes of fig, dark plum, black cherry, vanilla bean and baking spices
2007 Abacela “Reserve,” Umpqua Valley ($45): Blackberry, boysenberry and notes of smoke, leather, dried herbs, chocolate and black licorice
2008 Abacela "Estate,” Umpqua Valley ($35): Blackberry, fig, cherry and black plum with undertones of baking spices, dried herbs and flowers
2009 Abacela, Umpqua Valley ($21): Lighter bodied than Abacela's other releases, this wine is vibrant and approachable with notes of cherry cola, blackberry, mocha and savory spice
2009 RoxyAnn Winery, Rogue Valley ($30): Baking spices, black cherry, vanilla bean, mocha and dark flowers
2007 Red Lily, Rogue Valley ($35): Baked cherries and strawberries, black plum, red roses, brown sugar with well integrated oak notes of vanilla and cinnamon stick