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Thoughts on California Tempranillo

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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.

  1. For me, as a retailer there is no reason I can think of to recommend a $20 + bottle of domestic Tempranillo when I can give the consumer a perfectly lovely Rioja for around $15, sometimes even less than that. Not that the domestic ones aren’t good, though I have honestly not tried that many, but in this market the goal for me is to offer the customer the best bottle for the money and in this case, gotta go old world.

  2. This is a tough one. I love Tempranillo and always thought it would do well in this arid climate. Unfortunately, Sam, above, is correct. How do you sell a $20 California Tempranillo when you got a terrific Rioja for $15.00? Granted, they’ll be different. Can the California rendition be better? Possibly, but then you got a hell of sales job on your hands.

  3. Charles Hossom says:

    As a viticulturist I think Tempranillo has great potential in California both as a varietal and as a blender. I suggest you look for the 2009 Steele Tempranillo from the Red Hills Appellation. For me, I tend to search for the best representation of what I like in the “old world” wines in the “new world”. To me it is a standard by which progress or the lack thereof is measured. I think of the 2009 Steele as the best new world example of the variety I have tasted so far but I will keep searching…

  4. Mitch Cosentino says:

    Interesting thoughts! At Cosentino Winery, I made this wine called THE TEMP for many years in small numbers (under 1000 cases) with excellent success. It was always sold out before the next vintage came out. We won a lot of major medals for it and it suited the public, although many were not familiar with the Spanish versions. The wine we made was a ripe style and we always had to adjust the acid at Harvest.
    I also made Tannat. That, too, was a very popular tasting room wine and very few people knew the grape even a lot of other winemakers. Stylistically it is more typical of the what one might see from other parts of the world.
    These two varieties have not been continued by the new ownership because of a focus on Napa, of which both of these were not. i hear continuely from those disappointed that they are gone.
    Sangiovese is one that has continued at Cosentino. I have been making it since 1992 and have found it to be a popular wine when made right. I, too, at pureCru Wines make Sangiovese as my “alternative” varietal to the “standards”. While we have shared vineyard sources, the wines are stylistically different, but both successful artistically.
    I think most wineries need to do or at least experiment with these alternatives, both for artistic and commercial reasons. Too many get locked into one thing because they think that they should only focus on one or two things. They have been led down that path by some writers (Not speaking of or referring to Steve Heimoff here!) who feel a winemaker should limit themselves to 1-2 types to be good. Can you image a great Chef with a menu of the same 2-3 entrees all of time?? We as winemakers are “chefs”, it just takes longer for us to “cook” things up.

  5. You Californians have to get out of CA some time. Come to Oregon for tempranillo. And Steve, have you ever heard of Ribera del Duero for tempranillo? The region, climate, wine making and wine style are much, much different than Rioja.

  6. I’m not sure why there is always the quest for “the next hot grape/wine.” When I recall your “Barefoot” posting of the top 20 Wine Brands, it’s obvious that the bulk of American wine drinkers see wine as a commodity–they buy the cheapest and least offensive. They’re not interested in new wines, for they are already available, but ignored, in their original appellations. And it’s true, good luck on training them to pronounce “tempranillo.” I’m surprised that CA Viognier was able to climb that mountain.

  7. 100 % in agreement on Twisted Oak. Their temps are dynamite!

  8. Tempranillo reaches its highest potential in the high plains of North and Central Spain (Ribera Del Duero, Toro, Vinos de Madrid, Manchuela, La Mancha, etc.). These areas have semi-desertic continental climates, with warm to hot summers, short growing seasons (160 to 200 days), and predominantly lighter soils. It also flourishes, though (IMO) to a lesser extent, in the milder and cooler (with higher oceanic influence and more structured soils) semi-continental climates of Rioja, Somontano and Northern Navarra.
    Mediterranean climates with long growing seasons (e.g., Coastal California & Southern Spain) tend to produce flabby (Tempranillo) wines, with little to no structure and high ABV. The main grape varieties in areas with greater Mediterranean influence in Spain are Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and Garnacha (Grenache).
    As for CA, there seems to be good potential for Tempranillo in the Sierra Foothills at 3000 ft and higher; and at the high-altitude areas (3500-5000 ft) of LA, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties.
    Southern Oregon (Rogue Valley) and Washington State (Columbia Basin), on the other hand, seem perfectly suited for growing sound/balanced Tempranillo grapes.

  9. Lindsay H. says:

    There’s something to be said about Tempranillo not being as common as some other varietals. I like that it’s modest and doesn’t try to overpower or blow you away. The good ones can be a pleasure to drink without having to break the bank. It’s kind of like a kept secret among a select group of wine drinkers. Twisted Oak is a good one, but I recently discovered another great one, called Just Joshin 2007 Sierra Foothills Tempranillo, by Stein Family Wines. I couldn’t believe it was only $15! So good!

  10. Peter does bring up an interesting point about climatology of Tempranillo and balance is key. I agree with the sierra foothill comment but favorable meso climates can be found at many elevations. Our’s for example is 2500′ and I also believe in blending our spanish varietals is an attempt to make them even more interesting.

    Tempranillo with Grenache & or Syrah & or Mourved has already proven to be quite good and i am hoping Steve will take time to taste some of our 2010’s when we release it.

    All to be a hard sell but if the quality rocks and the price point is of value, I believe they will come.

  11. Michael says:

    Steve,
    Do you know Matchbook wines of the Dunnigan Hills area? They make Temptranillo based wines with some Graciano. Definitely worth looking into. Great wines, and John and Lynn Giugiere (spelling?) are great people.
    Michael P.

  12. I am drawn to Temps where I find them (El Dorado, Calaveras, Clarksburg) and I found a lovely 2008 Gundlach Bundschu Temp (Sonoma Valley). And they also do a Tempranillo Rose. I buy California and I don’t suffer for it.

  13. The problem with California Tempranillo is tied back to poor clones and experimentation of the variety in the wrong places. As early as the late 1880s through the 1950s, UC Davis variety trials did not find that Tempranillo performed well in California. But the use of one of the poorest quality clones and only a few, too hot, test locations, resulted in the variety not being recommended by UC Davis. Today growers are using much better clonal material and finding the climatic sweetspot, which is in slightly cooler locations with greater diurnal temperature ranges during ripening. But the best location for Tempranillo on the west coast is not in California, but in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley!

  14. Greg,
    I believe that at this level it becomes a matter of preference/taste.
    The Roseburg (Umpqua Valley) area is more “Rioja Alta-like” (and one of the best, if not the best, climates for growing “old world style” Bordeaux varieties in the entire US), with milder temperatures, low frost risk and higher precipitation and relative humidity.
    The Rogue Valley seems more like the Ribera Del Duero; with a harsher climate, a bone dry growing season, high summer temps and huge daily thermal variation. Frosts are also a pretty significant risk due to the shortness and variability of the season’s length.
    Cheers,

  15. hi Steve – Thanks for the kind words! I just want to mention that last month the Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society (TAPAS) (http://www.tapasociety.org) had its Grand Tasting at Fort Mason last month. A sell-out crowd filled the venue with over 2,000 people, and I assure you (and the folks who have commented) that every one of them knew how to pronounce Tempranillo. It was a crowd that knew why it was there and what it was looking for. I think you’ll find there is a lot more interest in domestic offerings than you have suggested. I hope you’ll be able to come to next year’s event (June 9th) to see for yourself.

  16. Winedoofus says:

    I agree, Longoria’s Santa Barbara County Tempranillo is a very good one; also Verdad, sourced from the same area of Santa Ynez Valley but from the Ibarra-Young Vineyard.

  17. Also, for those of you who are REALLY into Tempranillo, International Tempranillo Day is set for Sept. 1st. More info:

    http://internationaltempranilloday.eventbrite.com/

  18. we make a tempranillo under our DARE by Viader label simply because we love the grape and the wine that we can make out of it. It is also the only grapes we are buying for our DARE label, from a vineyard near Chiles valley that has that perfect combo of very warm days and colder nights the tempranillo grape needs, it is also a Ribera del Duero certified clone which adds to it’s spicy-ness and intense minerality. I agree with Mitch in that we winemakers have a lot in common with our culinary partners or “chefs”; if we couldn’t really showcase a terroir through the prism of more than just a few grape varieties we would be missing some interesting “hues”. We do just a few cases -always under 500- but it is a fantastic “introduction” wine. We get so wrapped up in Cabernet Sauvignon being “king” and doing so well; which it does, don’t get me wrong but…why not try a different perspective of that same fantastic terroir in the hands of a good winemaker that isn’t afraid of stepping out of conventional wisdom ;) What I mean by “introductory” wine is that because of it’s component flavors and tannin structure it serves ‘pleasure’ at first sip in particular to those that like the majority of relatively young Americans are venturing now more into drinking wine with their meals. It is the relative “softness and light body-ness” of Tempranillo that capture their palates without aggression and the complexity of flavor becomes an invitation to try again; if the ‘market’ would allow me to make more of it I would for I consider Tempranillo perfectly suited grape for california, I am sure that it did not get recorded as a commercial production but having had so many Spaniards in these lands for centuries… there must have been at one point or another some plantings of Tempranillo dedicated to sustain sacramental duties ;) At any rate, when I present our DARE Tempranillo or any of our wines for that matter; I emphasize what I call “mouth feel and pleasure factor” and for those two important elements, our Napa valley Tempranillo can deliver with largesse. It is also important to remember that it can be somebody’s first time approaching a red wine and in that case it is perhaps best to introduce a young palate ‘gradually’ and then watch them take off, because nature will do the rest…I always have fun watching the “aha” moment, that ‘discovery’ that makes the experience a “win-win” for all involved.

  19. Just to ensure that no one gets the wrong idea about American tempranillo, and at least somewhat contradictory to what Steve and Ms. Viader indicate, depending on where/how (in the US) tempranillo is grown and how the wine is made it can be highly structured and powerfully complex (even at modest alcohol levels). Quite the opposite of soft and light bodied.

  20. Interesting discussion. My perception is that Steve is right as are many others who have commented. Perhaps there is no wrong or right here, we are all just handling different parts of the elephant and describing the species from what we have felt. Tactile reports from the Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro (where the summer is hot but the growing season short) tell us what tempranillo is really all about; and that is a beautiful animal. Wines from regions that enjoy both hot summer and a long growing season tell us about a very different species similar to that described by Amerine and Winkler.
    I have been growing tempranillo 16 years plus at a site in southern Oregon situated within a Rioja Homoclime, that is “near the edge for this varietal” and we love the results.

  21. Washington State has great potential for Tempranillo, particularly reflective of the Ribera del Duero wines. Rather than to somewhat generalize with “Columbia Basin” (but thanks Peter for the mention of our state), specifically, the Yakima Valley and Walla Walla are regions of significant promise. In both cases, the climates are fairly moderate with summers averaging in the mid to upper 80’s, coupled with cool nights due to the continental, inland desert geography. With average annual rainfall in the Yakima Valley around 6 to 8 inches, we can entirely control irrigation, a considerable tool in grape growing. Additionally, our soils are generally loess with fractured basalt coupled with a good amount of calcium carbonate and a myriad amount of cobble, so drainage is excellent.

    On the other hand, we have several “hot spots” such as Red Mountain, the Horse Heaven Hills and the Wahluke Slope which produce Tempranillo that more resemble the wines of the Rioja and Toro. In that case, acids drop considerably with temperatures not unlike the upper Napa Valley, so pH can be a concern.

    No doubt, we’re in our “diaper stage” with Tempranillo, but we’re up on our feet and walking. The next primary issue will be clonal selection, but as with Syrah in Washington, now at around 7, clonal availability will certainly evolve.

    As one of the first producers of Syrah in Washington, I’ve seen the grape go from literally a hand-full of acres to now around 4,000 with estimates of 800 or more individual bottlings. In the early days of the mid-90’s, it was difficult to sell the wine. Now, it’s become difficult once again as there are so many it’s like the proverbial kid in the candy shop syndrome.

    That the public is generally conservative and tends to stick with what they know is nothing new. Having been the first producer of Viognier in Washington, I can attest to the fact that it was an uphill battle, particularly considering the struggle to pronounce the word. Today in Washington, I rarely encounter a fairly knowledgeable individual that does not know the grape, nor has not purchased the wine. All of this took roughly 10 or 12 years.

    With that in mind, I would be reluctant as a journalist to forecast the evolution of Tempranillo in the U.S. Don’t forget, younger generations are becoming far more wine savvy than in the past, and the power of social media networking is substantial.

    The attendance of roughly 2,000 people at the TAPAS Grand Tasting in San Francisco last June represents a clear statement that wine consumers are not all caught in the box of redundancy.

    I’m curious, how many more “interesting” Cabernet and Merlot wines will continue to be produced? And after all, why would any person with a sound mind want to make wine in the U.S. when there’s already so many “wonderful” European versions available at such a bargain?

    I’m actually considering developing a “Wine-Sweat-Shop” (location undisclosed for obvious reasons) to be able to compete with the subsidized European wine industry. LOL!

  22. And so, the popularity is such that we now have our First Annual International Tempranillo Day on Sept. 1, 2011. We hope you will join us, Steve, in raising a glass. http://internationaltempranilloday.org
    Salud!

  23. Great article, Steve. As someone who grew up drinking (and loving) Spanish tempranillo, I too have long wondered why there are so few who grow it in CA. So I was thrilled when I first came to Gundlach Bundschu many years back to learn about the single block Tempranillo program, and have been happily surprised by its cult following ever since.

    We’ve been producing <800cs of Tempranillo annually since '95, and people really seem to love the savory characters you mention that make this wine incredibly food friendly and distinct from more fruit-forward CA reds.

    We even do ~200 cases of a dry rose of Tempranillo, the grape is very well suited to rose and there are many great Spanish examples, but I am not aware of another from CA (I'll need to check with TAPA on that).

    Our single block is 4.5 acres planted in 1993 to Davis2 clone. It is on the cool valley floor of our estate, alongside gewurz, chard and pinot. As you say, it needs cool conditions to keep acidity, and we get really cool nights, being 8 miles from the bay. Certainly no lack of warm days in southern Sonoma though – our winemaker Keith Emerson feels it reaches optimal maturity in late September.

    To your point, I agree that it is unlikely Tempranillo will ever challenge the most popular varieties for the 'sweet spot' of the American palate (sorry, pun intended). But I believe there is a strong niche of consumers like me who are excited by every new domestic entrant, and I for one am willing to pay a bit of a premium for variety as well as to encourage the best examples to keep it up.

  24. John Brooks says:

    Since July….. In the Sierra Foothills, Chuck Hovey of Hovey Wines (and formerly Stevenot)won Gold (one of only 2 golds awarded to American Tempranillos) at the 2011 Tempranillos al Mundo international competition. Also, Bokisch Vineyards produces a quite tasty Tempranillo sourced from Spanish clones.

  25. Interesting comments on ” why buy domestic Tempranillo when they make it in Spain? ” I bet many posed a similar question of Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa (vs. the original Bordeaux) in the ’70’s before Napa Cabernet Sauvignon caught on.

  26. Very Interesting comments on Tempranillo, For most Tempranillo producer the problem is not the varietal the problem is that most of the winemakers are trying to make tempranillo like the Spanish do and that’s one of the reason why Tempranillo’s are so similar very poor and dry on my opinion we should make Tempranillo different it haves so much potential I personal been trying to found the way to make it different than most producer I have my 2013 Tempranillo going to ML right now on barrels of course I honestly I’m very exited about it I did everything different so far the wine taste delicious hope Steve will give me the chance and try my 2013 Paso Robles Tempranillo by the way my label is DiabloPaso Exclusively Tempranillo 100% Paso Robles good luck to every one cheers!

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