Master Sommelier Yoon Ha, from San Francisco’s acclaimed Benu restaurant, did a great job presiding over yesterday’s Ribera del Duero tasting and seminar, held at the Ferry Building on a gloomy, gray day. We had six different wines, all current releases and all 100% Tempranillo, that illustrated what Yoon called “the diversity” that characterizes this 30-year old Denominacíon de Origen.
Yoon, who lived several years in Ribera, is high on the wines, as are many of his colleague somms in the City. I can see why. They’re wines of great elegance and finesse, ranging through the unoaked or only lightly oaked Jovens, to the Crianzas (aged two years, with a minimum of one year in barrel), Reservas (aged three years, with a minimum of one year in oak) and Gran Reservas (aged five years at minimum, with a minimum of two years in barrel). It was amusing to read, in the tech notes, that “During harvest each winery is assigned a surveyor by the Consejo Regulador of D.O. Ribera del Duero” to regulate the origin of the grapes, the varieties and percentages allowed, winemaking procedures, and so on. I had to smile at the thought of the California Department of Food and Agriculture sending “Reguladors” to each winery to police their practices. I asked Yoon if he thought that such bureaucratic intrusion was good for the wines, or if it inhibited innovation. He replied, in effect, that it was probably good, for it ensures a certain continuity of style and helps keep unqualified dabblers from harming Ribera’s reputation.
Here are my tasting notes:
1. D.O.5. Hispanobodegas S.L.U. Viña Gormaz 2010. All stainless steel. Bone dry with supple tannins and racy acidity. So fresh, elegant and clean, with sour red cherry candy fruit. So versatile with such a range of food, and only $10. An amazing value. I was with young Joey Franzia, of Bronco, and he loved this wine.
2. Bodegas Felix Callejo Crianza 2007. A touch of oak brings toast and eucalyptus. Reminded me of a Johnson Turnbull Cabernet from the 1990s. Great weight, body, very rich and deeply flavored. Black currants. Bone dry, complex, thick, supple tannins. Another super-versatile wine at the table. $14.
3. Protos B. Ribera Duero de Peñafiel Tinto Fino 2009. A little muted at first. Dry, elusive, complex. Herbs, dried cherries, earth. From 25-year old vines. Intense, austere, elegant, tannic, good acidity. $15 a bottle.
4. Alejandro Fernandez-Tinto Pesquera Crianza 2009. Very concentrated and intense. Dark color–great power and substance. Bone dry, clean, touch of raisins. Alcohol 14.0%. Spent 18 months in American oak. Concentrated, great weight. $28.
5. Explotaciones Valduero Reserva 2005. Picking up aged character, dried fruit, mushrooms. Bone dry, thick. Thirty months total in oak. Elegant, complex. Develops in the glass. Impressive. $32.
6. Viñedos Y Bodegas Garcia Figuero Tinto Figuero Reserva 2004. Sweeter than the others–from oak? 70% American wood, 30% French. Big wine, dry, powerful, from 50-year old vines. Dried fruits, balsam, grilled meat. Very serious wine. Great weight, power. Bone dry on the finish. Tannins rich, smooth, supple. Easily the standout of the flight. I asked Yoon what food from Benu he would pair this with and he said the rabbit cassoulet with black truffle bun, from the restaurant’s tasting menu. Then he added, “And it’s great with Mexican food, especially with mole.” This wine retails for $38.
I loved these Ribera wines. Compared to California (say, Sangiovese or Tempanillo or even Merlot), they’re drier, sleeker, earthier, more austere and elegant. I wrote of all six wines “subtle power” but was struck also by their food-friendly versatility and pricing. The low prices can be explained by two factors, I think: most of the vineyard land has been in the family for generations, so there’s no bank debt on it; and Spain’s horrible economy prohibits producers from charging too much, since much of the production is consumed in country. There is evidently a great desire on the part of Ribera producers to export to the U.S.
California has little or nothing to compare with these wines, from the Temps I’ve had. The best California Tempranillo I ever tasted was the Jarvis 2008 (Napa Valley, $53, 94 points), a delicious wine indeed, but with its strong oak, softness and powerfully sweet fruit, it was all California. Somewhere between a Crianza and a Reserva, I should think, was the Maisonry 2008 Tempranillo, from the Stagecoach Vineyard (Napa Valley, $42, 88 points). I liked its dry, medium-bodied weight, but then, it contained some Cabernet Franc; California Tempranillo on its own can be one-dimensional. Other Temp producers that have caught my eye–and you have to give them credit for marching against the market–are Twisted Oak, Longoria, Six Sigma, Curran and Bella Luna.
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.
Yesterday’s big Rioja tasting, sponsored by the Vibrant Rioja U.S. campaign and held on the 38th floor of the St. Francis hotel on a perfectly sunny day, was one of the most information-rich, educational wine seminars I’ve ever attended.
I went because, while I know a little about Rioja, it’s clearly not enough. The panel consisted equally of Rioja winemakers, an Oregon winemaker and a local critic. Most of what I learned was from the Spaniards as well as the moderater, Marnie Old, a savvy New York sommelier.
The Rioja, like other large wine regions, is divided into cooler parts (Alta and Alavesa, which receive Atlantic influences) and the more inland Baja, whose climate is warmed by the Mediterranean. Alcohol levels vary accordingly. This is an old region, with an old tradition, and what I found most interesting was how modern methods are upsetting the old applecart–with, in my opinion, unfortunate results.
Here are my notes on the ten wines tasted, in order.
1. Bodegas Valdemar 2010 Rioja Blanco “Inspiracion Valdemar” ($35). We learned that a rare white mutation of Tempranillo was found in 1988, and now, a few daring vintners try their hands at white Rioja. This wine was brilliant, pungently dry and acidic, with complex citrus, banana and honeysuckle flavors, similar to a barrel-fermented Pinot Gris. Score: 93.
2. Bodegas Faustino 2009 Rosado “Faustino VII” ($9). With a splash of Garnacha, this rosé was very high in acidity, with a not unpleasant sourness. It showed uplifted flavors of strawberries, cloves and dried herbs, and such was the tannic structure that I thought it ageworthy despite the giveaway price. Score: 89.
3.Bodegeas Bilbaînas 2008 Cosecha “Vina Zaco” ($12). In a way, the wine of the tasting. Bone dry, crisp in acidity, very complex in fruit, herbs and spices with a smoky finish. From the Alta. I though it was one of the greatest $12 wines I’d ever had, and raised my hand to say so. There was a murmur of approval throughout the audience. Score: 92.
4. Bodegas Vina Herminia 2010 Rioja ($10). Made with partial malolactic fermentation, in what the experts said is a very old-fashioned method, this was a light, fun wine, slightly gassy, like a Beaujolais. It had bubblegum and raspberry jam flavors, with refreshing acidity. I would serve it slightly chilled. Score: 87.
5.Herederos del Marques de Riscal 2010 Rioja “Proximo” ($12). Getting into bigger, firmer wines now. This young one from the Alavesa is hard and stony, with a lime, iodine intensity. The tannins are strong, acidity high. It is extremely elegant. Here’s where perception plays tricks with reality. Tasted blind, I would recommend aging. But then you see the price and wonder. Still, I would love to put this bottle into my cellar for 8-10 years and try again. Score: 91.
6.Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco 2007 Crianza ($18). I loved this wine. It was the ripest yet in the tasting, with scads of cherries, licorice, dark chocolate, spices and bitter coffee. Tannic and tough, but with great structure, and the sweet vanilla said to come from American oak. A lovely, dry, delicate wine resembling a cool-climate California Pinot Noir. Score: 92.
7. Bodega Marques de Murrieta 2005 Reserva ($22). This, the panel told us, was an utterly traditional Reserva. Aged for 22 months in American oak, it was a big, rich, impressively tannic wine, showing much sweetness of fruit (cherry compôte) and vanilla. Ripe and forward despite ample tannins, and bone dry on the finish. I thought it classy and distinguished and ageworthy. Score: 92.
8. Bodegas Ysios 2004 Reserva ($30). At the age of nearly 7 years, still fresh and lively, with licorice, currant and vanilla flavors, marked by bright acidity and firm tannins. Just beginning to show some bottle bouquet in the form of dried fruits/potpourri. A forward, lusty wine now, resembling a rugged Malbec or Shiraz, but in my opinion, with years ahead to soften and develop. Score: 93.
9. Bodega CVNE 1999 Gran Reserva ($60). Certainly the biggest wine so far. I wrote, “Massive, and frankly speaking, nowhere near ready.” Felt old-style, with earthy astringency and hard tannins and acids. Brooding, but enormously complex. I asked my neighbor, a well-known wine personality, what she thought, and she said it was ready now. I didn’t think so, and once again raised my hand to inquire of the panel. As we were nearing the end of the tasting, Ms. Old allowed only one of the Spaniards, Rafael Vivanco (Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco), to reply. He agreed with me that the wine is an infant. I would like to try it in 10-15 years. Score: 93.
10. Bodegas Marques de Caceres 2008 Rioja “MC” ($40). This wine blew my mind, and not in a good way. I wrote: “scandalous!” After the the previous nine wines, it was made California cult-style, a wine obviously meant to appeal to certain critics with a high score. It seemed to me to have little to do with Rioja. Once again, I was forced to wave a tattoed arm and have Ms. Old call on me. I expressed myself, asking for the panel’s opinion. This was clearly the most controversial discussion of the day, and I’m afraid poor Ms. Old, who tried to keep us on schedule, just gave up. The Spaniards on the panel said, basically, “Well, this is a business, and all we can do is give the consumers what they’re asking for.” Someone in the back of the room said, “Yes, but please don’t sell your soul.” I can empathise with the Spaniards, who feel, perhaps, that the world is turning its back on the hard, tannic, rustic, American oaky Tempranillos of their tradition in favor of riper, softer, higher alcohol, French-oaked wines. (The ‘08 Caceres was aged 15 months in 100% new French oak). But it really was a pity to see such a desperate ploy for attention. Score: 87, on a good day.