June 25, 2001

Tempranillo (Temp-rah-NEE-yoh). As mellifluously as the word rolls off the tongue, so does the wine flow down your gullet.

Tempranillo (Temp-rah-NEE-yoh). As mellifluously as the word rolls off the tongue, so does the wine flow down your gullet.

Tempranillo is one of Spain's most important red grape varieties, and is often thought of as Spain's answer to Cabernet Sauvignon. In Spanish "tempranillo" means early, which is why the grape was given that name, because it ripens earlier than most red varietals. It is the primary varietal used in Spain's popular Rioja wines, and only until recently was rarely used outside of Spain except for blending.

The two major Tempranillo regions in Spain are Rioja in North Central Spain, and Ribera Del Duero, just south of Rioja. Many of the Riojas are blended with 25% Grenache and Carignan, which produce brighter, more acidic wines than Tempranillo, which is why many Rioja wines are thinner and more acidic than single bottlings of Tempranillo. The Ribera Del Duero region produce single varietal bottlings, or at least 90-100% Tempranillo, which is usually the blend in the States.

Originally Tempranillo came to America's West Coast as Valdepanes, and at the turn of the century was grown in the Central Valley. The Central Valley was not the ideal climate for the grape to flourish, and viticulture was not nearly as sophisticated as it is today. In addition, the Spanish from Spain did not settle the wine regions of California, the Italians did, bringing with them their knowledge of their varietals, such as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, and of course their acquired knowledge of French wine, which included Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Tempranillo was at best a poor cousin when thought of at all, and was not allowed to reach its full potential at that time. When it was used, it was used as a blending grape for jug wine, and all these factors thrown together left Tempranillo with a poor reputation in America. In the sixties, as more and more people traveled overseas, enjoying the Riojas of Spain, wine growers began to wonder why Tempranillo was so ubiquitous and wonderful in Spain, but had never taken hold here. One man from Oregon thought this to be almost criminal and took it upon himself to produce an Oregon Tempranillo. That man is Earl Jones of Abacela Vineyards and Winery in the Umpqua Valley.

Although Abacela produces other excellent varietals, they consider Tempranillo to be their flagship wine, and as of now are the only producers of a Tempranillo in Oregon.

Lately, a number of important wineries in California have decided to take up the cause, and are producing wine made primarily from the Tempranillo grape. They have succeeded admirably, and are producing a lush, complex wine that can age for years, but is approachable now. As a young wine, Tempranillo is more approachable than Cabernet Sauvignon, and still has the alcohol and tannins to age for years.

To give you an idea of how rare this varietal is in the U.S., Turning Bull plants less than an acre out of a total of 380 acres. Boeger has upped the number of acres devoted to Tempranillo, from approximately 2-3 acres to 5 acres out of a 100 acres, i.e. 4 to 5 percent. Abacela of Oregon has 12 acres planted out of a total of 35 acres, but Tempranillo is their main varietal. Compare this to a popular Spanish wine, Valdubon, 100% Tempranillo, which has 100 acres devoted solely to its production.

Spain is the world's third-largest producer of wine, Italy being number one, then France, then Spain. Spain has approximately 4.5 million acres dedicated to wine, which is more acreage than any other country. In the '90s Spain had over 81,000 acres of Tempranillo plantings. Napa Valley has only about 38,000 total acres of grapes planted. So, you can imagine the huge amount of wine produced from the Tempranillo grape, and the tremendous difference in quality that that volume dictates. Most people have heard of Rioja wines, but few know that Tempranillo is the predominant grape.

So, why has this grape been so overlooked?

In Spain, of course, it hasn't been, but in most of the other wine growing regions of the world it has been eclipsed by Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and other red grape varietalsuntil recently. California is catching on, Australia and South America are not far behind, and it won't be long before you see Tempranillo wines right alongside the Cabs and the Merlots. And for good reason. It can be drunk young, it ages well.

It is complex and can be a big wine with great structure that goes well with red meat, rich cheese, and anything that a gorgeous Cab would do well with. But, to truly make your mouth water, let me give a description by a winemaker. "The nose is of very ripe blackberries mingled with red and black stone fruit like plums and prunes. The dark purple wine fills the palate with a rich medley of intensely ripe fruit admixed with minerals, licorice and leather. The wine's concentration and structure dominates the midpalate. Firm yet round tannins underpin a long complex, fruity finish with hints of vanilla and chocolate. This is a big, elegant, graceful wine with great aging potential." Tempting? I think so!

Tempranillo is most definitely on the rise, and in the next five to ten years you will see more and more of it. Because it has to make its mark in this country, at this point in time it is a good value next to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I would first seek out an American grower to try it, because from the wines I tasted, dollar for dollar, we are ironically producing a more lush Tempranillo than the Spanish.

Considering the volume that comes out of Spain, I hope I am proven wrong, because I want more of it! In five years Tempranillo will be as common as West Coast Nebbiolo or Sangiovese, and for my palate a more substantial wine.

Think of Tempranillo as the backup singer who is finally given a chance at a solo, and makes everybody stand up and take notice. For wine drinkers, this wine can sing!