Tempranillo, the bold red classic grape of Spain’s Rioja region, is quickly becoming a favorite grape and wine across the Pacific Northwest.
Tempranillo landed in the Northwest, thanks in no small part to the vision of Earl Jones, owner of Abacela Winery near Roseburg, Oregon, who planted the state’s first tempranillo in 1995. Washington’s first tempranillo went into the soil at famed Red Willow Vineyard. The Yakima Valley vineyard first planted it in 1993.
While not a dominant variety by any means, tempranillo is slowly growing, with 35 acres planted in Walla Walla, 16 acres in the Horse Heaven Hills and a mere 4 acres on warm Red Mountain. In southern Oregon, the early-ripening variety takes up 77 acres.
One area that is an up-and-comer with delicious tempranillo is the Snake River Valley in southern Idaho, which is consistently producing top tempranillos. It seems to thrive in high-elevation vineyards, which helps the grapes ripen slowly while retaining all-important natural acidity.
Here are several examples of Northwest tempranillos we’ve tasted recently, including four Idaho examples. Ask for these at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.
Abacela 2013 Barrel Select Tempranillo, Umpqua Valley, $33: As the maturity of the Fault Line Vineyards settles in, Abacela’s amigos benefit. Founding winemaker Earl Jones describes tempranillo as akin to a cabernet sauvignon in its youth, and here are classic notes of Bing cherry, pomegranate and cherry pipe tobacco with the variety’s magisterial tannins. At this point, the finish carries the muscularity of a petit verdot with a trail of Montmorency cherry juiciness and white pepper. In a decade, it will begin to drink more like a pinot noir, but in the meantime, enjoy with lamb or pork.
Sawtooth Estate Winery 2014 Classic Fly Series Tempranillo, Snake River Valley, $30: Founding grower Brad Pintler provided a glimpse at the range of possibilities for varieties with his Sawtooth Vineyard. Seattle-based Precept controls the winery he launched and that vineyard, and Meredith Smith continues to showcase the versatility of Sawtooth. This middle-tier lineup continues to grow, and her latest tempranillo comes with well-managed plum skin tannins and a profile of big and deep blue fruit. Blackberry juice leads into the finish of blueberry-pomegranate.
Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards 2015 Winemaker’s Reserve Tempranillo, Umpqua Valley, $39: As much as Stephen Reustle is praised for his groundbreaking work in the U.S. with grüner veltliner, he’s actually got more tempranillo in the ground across his 200-acre estate near Roseburg, Oregon, than any other variety. There’s spiciness to the aromas of teriyaki beef jerky, cola, plum and cedar. It’s a big wine with broad shoulders as black cherry and pink strawberry flavors include Earl Grey tea and vibrant acidity.
Cinder Wines 2015 Tempranillo, 53% Idaho, 47% Washington, $29: A biting freeze in November 2014 took its toll on vineyards throughout the Snake River Valley, which prompted Melanie Krause to look beyond Idaho to satisfying the growing demand among her fans for tempranillo. That search led her into Washington’s Rattlesnake Hills and Two Coyotes Vineyard. Combined with her trusted Sawtooth Vineyard — home to one of the fascinating cinder cones that sparked the name of her winery — Krause managed to increase her bottling from the 2014 vintage to the 2015 vintage by 27 percent. Its theme of red currant and cherry with Weetabix biscuit and dusty, age-worthy tannins allows it to drink akin to a more robust cabernet franc.
Bitner Vineyards 2014 Erletxe Tempranillo, Snake River Valley, $35: Internationally renowned biologist Ron Bitner began with chardonnay in the early 1980s then became inspired by syrah when his research on the alfalfa leafcutter bee took him to Australia. Now, his passion is on this Spanish grape. His longtime friend Greg Koenig and Skyline Vineyard joined forces on this tier called Erletxe, Spanish for beehouse. Piquant tones of herbs and tobacco are joined by cordial cherry and red currant that lead to a structure of brawny tannins and pomegranate-cranberry acidity. Enjoy with Basque-inspired cuisine.
Cave B Estate Winery 2014 Tempranillo, Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley, $33: Winemaker Freddy Arredondo crafts wines for father-in-law/owner Vince Bryan by using estate grapes from the western edge of the Ancient Lakes. This stylish tempranillo opens with aromas of sweet herbs, spices and crushed blackberries, followed by flavors of lavender, violets, moist earth, leather and ripe Bing cherries. The tannins are expertly managed for a surprisingly smooth finish.
Hat Ranch Winery 2014 Tempranillo, Snake River Valley, $29: Sawtooth Vineyard, established by in the 1980s, introduced the Spanish grape to Idaho and it has found a home in Tim Harless’s program at Hat Ranch. The 20 months in barrel develops notes of mocha, coconut and toffee to join the lively red fruit reminiscent of red currant, raspberry and Montmorency cherry. A touch of petit verdot adds to the tannin structure of bittersweet chocolate.
Syringa Winery 2012 Tempranillo, Snake River Valley, $27: Boise’s Mike Crowley, one of the Northwest most underrated winemaking talents and a product of Walla Walla’s College Cellars, has shown a particular flair with Spanish varieties. There’s charming hedonism as chocolate and toasted coconut tones run alongside juicy black cherries and rich plums. Chewy tannins impart thickness, but there’s plenty of fruit and acidity to achieve delicious balance.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.