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World-class American Tempranillo

June 13, 2015 22 comments

If you will ask me “what is your favorite wine”, I would always honestly tell you that I don’t have one. Which is generally a true statement. With may be an exception of the Spanish wines – and Tempranillo wines in particular. Deep, deep down, I know that I have a tiny bias towards Tempranillo. Or at least if you will ask about the most memorable wine experiences, Tempranillo wines would be definitely at the forefront.

The “world-class” is not necessarily a generic term when it comes to wines – but this is how I like to refer to the wines which are best of the best in my opinion. The “world-class” in my vocabulary is reserved to the wines which don’t leave you indifferent; these wines solicit emotional response from the person drinking them, and for the most cases that response is a simple three letter “word” – wow (is this actually a word? Not so sure…).

Tempranillo is a great grape of Spain. Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro are close to any oenophile’s heart, with lots of unquestionably world-class wines, with hundreds years of winemaking history. Tempranillo made it to the California at the beginning of the 20th century, but was planted in the wrong places too many times (Tempranillo does the best on higher appellations and in the cooler climates), and was mostly used in the blends. In the 1990s, it made it to Oregon, Washington and then Texas, where it started showing excellent results in the single-varietal wines. I had an opportunity to taste single-varietal Tempranillo from Abacela winery in Oregon, and few of the Tempranillo wines from Texas, and they all were good and promising wines.

Couple of days after I published my Spanish Wine Recommendations posts, I got an email from Danielle Irwin, who I knew as a blogger at Naggiar Vineyards, the winery in the Sierra Foothills region in California, where her husband Derek works as a winemaker. Danielle offered to send me a sample of their Tempranillo wine, bottled under their own label as Irwin Family Vineyards. As you can imagine, I gleefully agreed (I rarely refuse a sample, never mind a bottle of Tempranillo), and in a few days the package arrived with two bottles and a letter from Derek inside. The letter included all the technical details regarding the Tempranillo bottle, as to where the grapes were growing (specific plot of the estate vineyard at 1,500 ft elevation), when the grapes were picked (in October 2010), how grapes were fermented (stainless steel and large format French oak barrels) and then how the wine was aged. I let the wine rest for a few days after the trip (to try to avoid “bottle shock”), but then patience worn out, and I opened that bottle…

Irwin Family Vineyards Tempranillo

2010 Irwin Family Tempranillo Piedra Roja Block 22 Sierra Foothills ($36, 13.5% ABV, 90% French Oak, 10% American Oak, 28 month)

Color: Dark garnet
Nose: Cherries, cedar box, spices
Palate: Dense, chewy, layered, blackberries, dusty texture (reminiscent of the famous Rutherford Dust). Great complementing tannins, soft but well supporting the structure. Perfect balance. Coffee and mocha in the long lingering finish.
Verdict: outright delicious, world-class wine. Drinkability: 8+. I would drink this wine in a heartbeat at any time. As an interesting side note, the wine paired amazingly well with the Comte cheese.

Derek mentioned in his note that this wine was inspired by the wines of Toro region, which typically are the most concentrated renditions of the Tempranillo, and I definitely see that parallel.

The second bottle was a Tempranillo blend:

Irwin Family Vineyards The Bull

2013 Irwin Family Vineyards The Bull Sierra Foothills ($24, 13.8% ABV, 44% Tempranillo, 28% Malbec, 28% Petite Sirah)

Color: Dark Garnet
Nose: sweet plums, vanilla, nutmeg, dark chocolate
Palate: medium body, touch of spices, perfect acidity, nice textural presence, nutmeg, impeccable balance, lots of dark chocolate both on the palate and in the medium-long finish
Verdict: Delicious! Drinkability: 8. Bonus: works very well with food, especially charcuterie (meat and cheese).

There you go, my friends – two delicious wines from the region which I really want to explore in depth (Sierra Foothills), and the world-class American Tempranillo. You don’t have to believe me – head over to the Napa and taste it at Irwin Family Vineyards, or sign up for their wine club (Tempranillo is only available for the club members). Cheers!

International Tempranillo Face Off – USA Fares Well

July 1, 2014 10 comments

DSC_0504Thinking about Tempranillo, what wines come to mind first? Rioja is an unquestionable champion, with its bright fruit expressions packaged into eucalyptus laden cigar box. Ribera del Duero is definitely next, with its perfect, firm structure, and then Toro, with layers upon layers of power. Tempranillo has one of the most synonyms, most of which point back to the different areas in Spain, so it is given that outside of three regions we just mentioned, the grape is very popular all around Spain. And then… well, there is not much outside of Spain. Portugal, where Tempranillo is known under the names of Aragonez and Tinta Roriz, is the only internationally renown source of Tempranillo wines outside of Spain – even then mostly using Tempranillo as a part of the blend. Australia and a few other countries also experiment with the grape – but I’m not sure they produce something worth bragging about.

And then, of course, there is the USA. Tempranillo made it into the California at the beginning of the 20th century, but really didn’t find much success there as a single varietal wine. You can find some of the Tempranillo made in the southern California, in places like Temecula Valley, but those wines are little known outside of the wineries which produce them. On a big scale, Texas probably is having the biggest success with Tempranillo in USA, where the grape is considered a signature state grape, and Tempranillo wines produced by many wineries. But our conversation today will not be about Texas Tempranillo – we are going a lot further North on the map, to the state of Oregon.

No, Oregon is not an internationally renowned source of Tempranillo wines, not yet anyway. However, while I was recently participating in the #winechat about Oregon Pinot Noir, someone mentioned Tempranillo as one of the grapes in Oregon which might have a bright future. As I’m very partial to the Tempranillo wines with the great love of Rioja, that piqued my interest. Tempranillo? From Oregon? Really? How good can that be? I was told that Abacela winery in Oregon produces excellent Tempranillo wine. I reached out to the winery, and – got the bottle to taste. But – I didn’t want to taste this wine on its own – I wanted to create some frame of reference. Yes, I would love to get the Texas Tempranillo, but – that would take a lot of time. Of course the best available source of Tempranillo wines is Spain, so I decided to get a few different wines from Spain. I purposefully avoided Rioja – those wines are rarely 100% pure Tempranillo, and the winemaking style is very specific to Rioja, so it wouldn’t be a good reference. Ribera del Duero wines also might be a bit too specific for this exercise, and Toro wines pack way too much power. I looked for generic Tempranillo renditions in my local wine store, and came up with two bottles from Spain – one from Navarra and one from La Mancha.

Before we talk about our “face off”, let me say a few words about our competitor from USA – Abacela winery. According to the winery’s web site, Abacela name comes from “an ancient and now almost obsolete verb, ‘abacelar’ common to three Iberian languages-Spanish, Galician and Portuguese-and which means “to plant a grape vine.”” Abacela winery started in 1992, when Earl and Hilda Jones purchased a 19th century property in Umpqua Valley in Southern Oregon. This purchase was the result of a very long and intense research on the climate, soil and landscape, to find the place ideally suited to produce a Tempranillo wine on par with the best Spanish Tempranillo. If you are interested to see how the pursuit of passion looks like, read the section called Story on Abacela web site – I wish the other wineries will give you even half of the information about their wines and vineyards.

Our tasting, which I proudly called Face Off, was very simple – I sat down with my wife to try these three wines. We tried the wines in the exact order as you will see it below.

Here are the detailed notes:

2010 Venta Morales Tempranillo La Mancha, Spain (13.5% ABV, $7.99)
Color/visual: Dark garnet, almost black. Very substantial legs
Nose: Baking spices, ripe plums, touch of earthiness
Palate: Prunes, touch of figs, nice acidity, slight imbalance at midpalate
Verdict: Shows slightly “overboard”. Drinkability: 7

2011 Abacela Fiesta Tempranillo Umpqua Valley, Oregon (13.6% ABV, 17 months in barrel, $23)
Color/visual: Garnet, noticeable rim variation as well as legs
Nose: dark chocolate, herbs
Palate: Very elegant, nice fresh fruit, good acidity, very noticeable cherries, present tannins, medium to long finish
Verdict: overall very nice wine. Should be able to stand up against Ribera del Duero. Drinkability: 8-

2009 Bodegas Ochoa Finca Santa Cruz Tempranillo Crianza Limited Edition, Navarra, Spain (13.5% ABV, aged 1 year in American oak, $15.99)
Color/visual: Garnet color, very slight rim variation, noticeable legs
Nose: Touch of sweet fruit, sweet cherries, eucalyptus
Palate:Elegant, perfectly balanced, soft sweet fruit, tobacco, smoke, incredible textural complexity, touch of dust
Verdict: An outstanding Tempranillo, one of the very best I ever tried. Drinkability: 8

As you can see, Abacela Tempranillo definitely worth its salt soil, and I would highly recommend it (if you can find it). I also want to note that Abacela Fiesta is only an introductory Tempranillo – they produce another 3 wines out of Tempranillo, plus a full range of very unusual for the Oregon (or even USA) wines, such as Tannat, Dolcetto and Tinta Amarela – full list looks very impressive and tempting.

As for my little Tempranillo competition, we are done here. Have you ever had an “unusual” Tempranillo wine? Have you ever tried Abacela Tempranillo or any of their wines? What do you think?  Cheers!

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