The black Spanish grape tempranillo yields red wines customarily dense in color, grippy with tannin, muscular in build, generous with oak, and effusive in the smell and flavor of fruits like strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. A tobacco leaf or two in the mix also isn’t unheard of.
All that adds up to a wine most at home with the roasts and stews of fall and winter, which explains why International Tempranillo Day is scheduled Nov. 13 this year.
Why, then, write of such a husky red wine early in the summertime, when dishes tend to be lighter, calling for buoyant white wines?
Because tempranillo, though popularly perceived as almost invariably heavy and rich, is being made in a surprisingly wide range of styles nowadays, especially along the West Coast of the United States. Some of those takes are so fresh and lithe that they could be paired with seafood.
This became clear when the Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society (TAPAS) staged its seventh annual tasting in the Golden Gate Club on the grounds of the Presidio in San Francisco in April.
As the group’s name suggests, the organization was founded a decade ago by California and Oregon vintners smitten mostly with tempranillo, though they also were or have become appreciative of other grape varieties closely identified with the Iberian peninsula.
Those include several grapes and varietals that have been generating more buzz than tempranillo lately, such as torrontes, albarino, graciano, mourvedre and grenache. Still, tempranillo remains the flagship wine for most of the organization’s 40 or so members who were pouring samples at the tasting.
Several Sacramento-area vintners embraced tempranillo early on, and their work with the grape has yielded impressive interpretations fairly consistently. I’m thinking Scribner Bend in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta, Twisted Oak in Calaveras County, Matchbook in Yolo County, St. Amant and Bokisch in Lodi, and Convergence and Yorba in Amador County.
Thus, at the San Francisco tasting I concentrated on producers with which I wasn’t familiar. Several stick to the classic big-and-concentrated model for tempranillo.
Others are augmenting or breaking from that standard with grape-growing and winemaking techniques aimed at retaining tempranillo’s charm but lightening its overall impact on the palate. They’re doing this in part by cultivating grapes in cooler settings than usually associated with tempranillo. They also blend in other varieties to help moderate tempranillo’s tannins while perking up and complicating its aromas and flavors. They’re exploiting oak less greedily. And if they can afford it, they’re hanging on to their tempranillos longer before releasing them to the market, thereby giving them time to mellow.
For cooks and wine enthusiasts who recognize that even in the summer there’s a place at the table for a robust red, especially when tri-tip or rib-eye is coming off the grill, there’s still plenty of weighty and forward tempranillos available.
One of the more balanced yet forthright examples I tasted was the Martian Ranch & Vineyard 2011 Santa Barbara County Gravitas Tempranillo ($35), aptly named for its sweet juicy fruit, hearty construction and invigorating acidity.
A more restrained but nonetheless athletic take in that vein was the Quinta Cruz 2011 San Antonio Valley Tempranillo ($20), hefty yet refreshing for its revitalizing tang.
Six Sigma Ranch in Lake County was represented by two deeply colored, solidly structured and unusually persistent interpretations, the Six Sigma Ranch 2009 Lake County Reserve Tempranillo ($45), the current release, and the Six Sigma Ranch 2010 Lake County Reserve Tempranillo, to be released this fall.
And Earl Jones, an early and energetic proponent of tempranillo, showed the most powerful and complex take on the varietal I sampled all day, his Abacela 2009 Umpqua Valley Paramour ($90). A proprietary blend based largely on tempranillo, the wine is made by Jones only in years when growing conditions are especially benevolent for the variety. The 2009 is just the second he’s made during the first decade of this century. Inky and jammy, with intriguing notes of brownies and bacon that complement perfectly the wine’s rich blackberry fruit, it won’t be released until this fall.
Of the tempranillos that were somewhat lighter but nevertheless vivid with berry flavors, the standout for its complexity, naturally fitting American oak and the remarkable length of its finish was the Longoria Wines 2011 Santa Ynez Valley Tempranillo ($36).
The Pierce Ranch Vineyards 2010 San Antonio Valley Tempranillo Reserve ($20) spoke more quietly but was similarly styled. It’s a medium-bodied interpretation with cherry and berry fruit flavors that pop, and acidity that is respectable; the toast and smoke of the oak barrels in which it was aged add a pleasant layering.
Lanny Replogle of Fenestra Winery at Livermore was pouring samples of two similarly middleweight tempranillos, his Fenestra Winery 2009 Lodi Tempranillo ($23), whose sunny fruit is nicely balanced by refreshingly restrained tannins, and his Fenestra Winery 2009 Livermore Valley Tempranillo ($36), one of the few interpretations on the day that could be termed “European” for its lean yet sturdy structure, light wood presence and rare spiciness.
Lighter-style tempranillos also with European bones included the Kenneth Volk Vineyards 2009 San Benito John Smith Vineyard Tempranillo ($36), whose bright strawberry fruit, sinewy structure and crisp acidity was accented with wild notes of tobacco and game.
Another especially refreshing take on the varietal was the Lee Family Farm 2012 Arroyo Seco Tempranillo ($20), notable for the up-front spunk of its youthful fruit and overall equilibrium.
And then there were three especially spirited interpretations by Louisa Sawyer-Lindquist of Verdad Wine Cellars in Los Olivos. All were lean yet lively, with seams of exotic complexity unusual for the varietal: the aromatic and supple Verdad Winery 2010 Edna Valley Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Tempranillo ($30), the equally aromatic but more wiry Verdad Winery 2009 Edna Valley Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Tempranillo ($30), and the slightly heftier and juicier Verdad Winery 2012 Central Coast Rock ’n Rojo ($25), beefed up with the addition of 25 percent syrah.
Tempranillo’s future in California and elsewhere along the West Coast is anybody’s guess. It’s been slow to get traction, perhaps because of its longstanding reputation as a blender in Central Valley jug wines, perhaps because as a stand-alone varietal it tended to be made in one blockbuster style. Only about 1,000 acres are planted to tempranillo in California, and while that total has grown over the past decade in such promising areas as San Luis Obispo County, El Dorado County, Amador County and Napa Valley, much of the growth has been concentrated in such longtime blending regions as Fresno and San Joaquin counties.
Yet, the tempranillos at the TAPAS tasting showed why the variety is such a staple of the Spanish wine trade: It can be flexible and adaptable, subject to all sorts of interpretation that make it fitting for a meal that consists of the wide range of textures and flavors best represented by, well, an assortment of tapas.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.