By Randy Caparoso, The Tasting Panel, June 2016
Who would argue against the fact that Tempranillo has a place among the pantheon of the world's greatest wine grapes - right up there beside Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Sangiovese and Syrah? What could be argued, though, is that Tempranillo has never really taken to American terroirs. Until recently, that is.
Although there is more Tempranillo planted in California (about 1,000 acres) than Oregon (400 acres), Oregon, believe it or not, is where the grape is taken most seriously. To wit, the Oregon Tempranillo Alliance (established in 2015) consists of 35 grower/producer members. According to OTA president Earl Jones (also owner/grower of Abacela Vineyards & Winery), there are actually 57 Tempranillo producers in the state, sourcing from seven different Oregon Viticultural Areas. Jones estimates that Oregon Tempranillo grapes and wines have a yearly economic impact of some $9 million.
I first met Jones in his Umpqua Valley estate in 1999, soon after tasting his first commercial vintage of Abacela Tempranillo, a 1997. Although Tempranillo was first introduced to California in 1888 - cultivated as Valdepeñas for most of the twentieth century - Jones was convinced that Oregon’s higher latitude daylight hours and moderate climate (fairly warm, yet actually cooler than most of Spain’s Tempranillo regions) made a more ideal home away from home for the grape.
Truth be told, though, it took Oregonians a good ten to 15 years to emerge out of their own growing pains. Perhaps out of sentimentality, Jones asked me to sit on a panel with two geologists and two other journalist, leading seminars addressing the evolution of the varietal during the inaugural Oregon Tempranillo Conference this past January. Just prior to conference, I sat for a double-blind tasting of 32 Oregon Tempranillos, alongside six reds from Toro, Ribera del Duero and Rioja.
All the Spanish reds were wonderful, with their usual pungent, earthy, sweetly oaked, sometimes oxidized distinctions - no mistaking them. The big surprise to me was actually preferring a good dozen of the Oregonians over the Spanish - and not just for the deeply concentrated, floral and mineral qualities typical of Southern Oregon Tempranillos, but also for the scrubbier, more red-fruit -scented notes of Tempranillos form the Oregon side of Walla Walla Valley, or lankier, more acid- driven qualities of Tempranillos grown in Willamette Valley.
While producers like Belle Fiore, Kriselle, Castillo Feliciana, Jaxon, Weisinger, Pebblestone, Girardet, Plaisance Ranch, Red Lily, Folin, Holloran, Reustle Prayer rock and Valley View have joined Abacela s leaders in these exciting, new permutations of the grape, Earl and Hilda Jones still remain at the head of the class. Their Abacela 2013 Reserve and 2013 Paramour, for instance, are powerful yet seamless, impeccably crafted wines - phenomenal by any standard, even Spain’s.
During our final dinner at the Oregon Tempranillo Conference, Jones brought out a surprise - a bottle of that first Abacela 1997 Tempranillo. Oh, it was still flawed with that touch of saddle leather, yet imbued with a good amount of the deep, velvety, roasted meat and wild berry concentration that fired up the imagination 17 years ago. And now those imaginings have come to pass.