Thoughts on California Tempranillo
Tempranillo is the great grape and wine of Spain’s Rioja, where it produces a range of wines, from light, savory rosés to ageworthy masterpieces. In California, Tempranillo’s fate has not been so kind.
Perhaps it’s to be expected that a grape with so short a history in the New World should experience growing pains. The first grapes were not even planted until recent decades. In my extensive collection of California wine history books, there is not a mention of Tempranillo until the 1980s; between “Semillon” and “Zinfandel” always is a lacuna. Even in the year 2000, when the American writer, Paul Lukacs, published his authoritative “American Vintage,” the word “Tempranillo” appears only once, in the context of a sentence concerning experimentation. Five years later, in his encyclopedic “A History of Wine in America,” the California academic, Thomas Pinney, writes merely that “Tempranillo…has aroused some interest,” and he lumps it into a larger category of grape varieties he calls “exotica.”
It is odd, when you think about it, that California– the most experimental and forward-looking of American states, a place where innovation has ruled for more than a century–should have been so slow to adapt to a grape so well known and respected in Old Europe. But so it has been. I have tasted and reviewed close to 100,000 California wines during my career, and yet a little more than one hundred of them have been Tempranillo. There were a mere 957 acres of it, bearing and non-bearing, planted in the state in 2010. Compare that with 77,602 acres of Cabernet. Those 957 acres represented an increase over the previous decade of about 50%, but still, it is a paltry amount, which leads to the question of why.
One reason clearly is quality. Based on my experiences, Tempranillo simply isn’t a very interesting wine. At its cleanest and most coherent, it can be soft and silky and light-bodied, with pleasant berry flavors reminiscent of a minor Pinot Noir. But with prices averaging from the mid-$20s to nearly $40, it’s not worth the price. The best California Tempranillo I ever tasted was the Jarvis 2008, of which I said it was “as silky and light as a Pinot Noir, and marked by the dryness and acidity you want in a Temp. Shows savory cherry, cola, tobacco, leather and spice flavors [and] a complexity and structure that bring a welcome dimension to the variety.” An impressive wine, but for $53, hardly a bargain.
Another reason why growers are reluctant to plant more Tempranillo is because they, or their marketing consultants, tell them how hard a sell it would be to a public barely able to pronounce the word. Rioja itself is on a bit of an upswing in the U.S., as well it should be. The Rioja marketing group, Vibrant Rioja, has launched a successful P.R. campaign in this country, and consumers are discovering the wines. But there’s a huge difference between a sommelier persuading a customer to chance buying a Rioja, and convincing her to buy something called “Tempranillo” from California at the local wine shop. American consumers are conservative, as the country tends to be these days. They prefer to stick with what they know, and avoid the devil they don’t know, who can deceive and disappoint them.
The variety needs cool conditions to maintain acidity, but also requires enough heat to develop the sugars required for full flavor development, as well as the thick skins to give color and tannins. This is a tricky combination. Most California Tempranillo is planted in areas too warm for it: Paso Robles, Lodi, Clear Lake, Alexander Valley. Rick Longoria, a legend in Santa Barbara County, has a good interpretation in his Clover Creek Vineyard bottling, which comes from a part of the Santa Ynez Valley that’s right in the middle of the cool-warm spectrum. If more Tempranillos were like that, consumers might buy more of it, but Longoria produces fewer than 300 cases of it in any given vintage, at $36 the bottle.
One other producer needs to be named: Twisted Oak, a small winery in Calaveras County, which is located in the Foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California’s old Gold Rush country, some 200 miles east of San Francisco. Twisted Oak is committed to Tempranillo, but prefers to blend it with other Spanish varieties, such as Graciano and Garnacha (Grenache). Their proprietary bottling, which they call The Spaniard, is always interesting and compelling. Yet it, too, is costly, at $49, and difficult to find.
Today’s winemaker has an ironic challenge: to stick with the popular varieties–Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir–which is to enter a bloodbath of competition during a down market, or to gamble with new varieties–Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Tannat–in the hopes of winning an early market looking for something new. It’s a very difficult decision, and it’s hardly surprising that so few have chosen to link their fate to Tempranillo.