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  • Spanish grapes find a home in US vineyards
  • Spanish grapes find a home in US vineyards
  • Spanish grapes find a home in US vineyards
  • Spanish grapes find a home in US vineyards
1. Abacela vineyards in southern Oregon 2. Earl Jones of Abacela, with his son Greg 3. Ron and Mary Bitner, from Bitner Vineyards in Idaho. 4. Winemaker Adam LaZarre from California. Photo credits: The producers and Jacob Kurtz (Bitner).

USA

Spanish grapes find a home in US vineyards

Bill Ward | April 11th, 2017

Tempranillo grapes have a long but spotty history in the United States. Albariño has almost no history at all. 

But both these Spanish varieties have made great inroads in recent years, with domestic production rising sharply in quantity and quality. This year’s San Francisco Chronicle Competition for domestic wines included 83 Tempranillos and more than a dozen Albariños. (I was on the panel judging Tempranillos and was mightily impressed by the overall quality.)

Plantings of Tempranillo are on the rise up and down the West Coast and the high-desert regions of Arizona and Texas, while Albariño acreage is growing at cooler sites in California, Oregon and even Long Island and Virginia on the East Coast. Many of the wines are sold direct to consumers, but they are starting to spread to retail stores and restaurant lists.

One vintner, Earl Jones of Abacela in southern Oregon, not only was a Tempranillo pioneer but has found a way to grow that and Albariño in his vineyards, not a common practice in their homeland.

“Our vineyard is mostly rolling hills and some sharp, steep slopes,” Jones explained. “On the south slopes it is very warm, and the north ones are partially in the shade. We got interested in Albariño in the 1990s but thought ‘wow, it’s too hot on flats or south slopes but maybe it works on north slopes. And the frugalness of my dad came through, as I thought ‘We can’t grow anything else there, so why not?’ “We planted a half-acre [2,023 m²] on the north side of a hill and fully expected it to fail. Now we make 1,500 to 2,000 cases a year.”

That makes Abacela the oldest continuous producer of both Albariño and Tempranillo in the United States. But far from the only one. At the Chronicle competition, 34 wineries from six states garnered gold or double gold medals for their Tempranillos, and six wineries (including one in North Carolina) did likewise for their Albariños. In California, nearly 1,000 acres (404 hectares) are planted to tempranillo and 280 to Albariño, the most of any state in both cases.

Still, the state that might be ideally suited for Tempranillo might be, of all places, Idaho, hardly a wine mecca. It turns out that Idaho’s Snake River Valley shares many of the same attributes as Rioja Alta.

“The sunshine is about the same, the soils are similar, the elevation is similar” to Rioja Alta, said Ron Bitner, owner of Bitner Vineyards in Idaho. “We’re totally irrigated here, and at 2,600 feet [609m] we have cool nights for acid retention.”
With a shorter growing season because of its elevation and northern location, Tempranillo’s early-ripening is a perfect fit, Bitner added. There’s also a more practical factor in play.

“We have one of the largest Basque populations in the country,” he said, “so I have a bit of a built-in audience. We’re pretty pro-Basque around here.”

Several of Bitner’s neighbors have started growing and/or making Tempranillo. One Idaho winery, Split Rail, even blends it with Garnacha for a truly traditional Spanish-style wine. “More and more Tempranillo is being planted here,” Bitner said. “In five years, it truly could be Idaho’s signature grape.” 

A thousand miles to the south, many vintners in Texas consider Tempranillo to already be their most important varietal.

Long and winding road

More than a century ago, Tempranillo vines arrived in California, misnamed as Valdepeñas. On both sides of the Atlantic, politics thwarted the grape’s growth: Prohibition in the United States and a dictatorship in Spain. “We have to remember that Spain was cut off from the rest of the world under Franco,” said Alan Kinne, a Central California vintner, “so it couldn’t get established 60, 70 years ago. The main five or six French varieties have a 100-year leg up on everybody else [in the US].”

So Kinne decided to do something about that more than two decades ago. He chuckled when asked about the rumor that he had snuck in “suitcase vines” from Spain. “I went to Spain three winters in a row, and I never felt comfortable putting 10 or 20 cuttings in a suitcase,” he said, “so I went over and shipped tens of thousands of cuttings.”

Most of the Tempranillo cuttings came from Ribera del Duero rather than Rioja, many of them from “very old vines” from Alejandro Fernández’s Pesquera and Viña Pedrosa, “very high-end stuff,” Kinne said. 

Those cuttings were planted from coast to coast (Virginia to California) with mixed results. “It did OK in Virginia, but not as good as we thought because it doesn’t like the humidity,” said Kinne, the director of winemaking at CaliPaso. “It does really well in Paso Robles, and Napa’s a great place for it, but you can’t change people’s ways,” alluding to the rampant popularity and profits of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, to the exclusion of other grapes.

It also has thrived in the Sierra Foothills and Lodi area, where Marcus Bokisch grows and makes award-winning Tempranillos (as well as Verdejo, Graciano and Albariño), and Jeff and Margo Runquist sell out of their Tempranillo (with some Graciano blended in) at the Runquist tasting room. “We have been making it more in a Crianza style,” Jeff Runquist said. “We want it to still have that youthful exuberance and freshness.”

That’s the case with most US Tempranillo producers — fewer years in barrel and bottle than the Reservas and Gran Reservas from the homeland — although, as Bitner notes, “After it has been bottle-aged a couple of years, it gets a lot better.”
Up in Oregon, Abacela is going a more traditional route, said Jones, who was originally inspired by Alejandro Fernández and has worked closely with viticulturist Jesús Yuste Bombín of the Instituto Tecnológico Agrario in Valladolid. 

“We’re making four wine in styles very much like the Spanish: a lighter style, less tannin, prettier, something a little better than your average Crianza; then an estate barrel selection, and a Reserva when the year is pretty good,” Jones said. “We make a Gran Reserva when it’s just an exceptional year.”

Finding the sweet spot(s)

In the late 1990s, the ever-inquisitive Kinne made three trips to Galicia to check out Albariño and liked what he found. Soon, thousands of cuttings were headed to the States, most of them landing on California’s Central Coast.

“I thought Edna Valley [near San Luis Obispo] would be a really good spot for Albariño,” Kinne said, “because it had a lot of ocean breezes and high humidity.”
His theory proved correct, as producers such as Niner, Tangent (whose Albariño is so popular it’s sold nationwide in kegs), Stephen Ross and LaZarre are making stellar stuff. Much of it comes from the 17-acre Paragon Vineyard, all derived from Kinne’s cuttings.

“Albariño is so aromatic,” winemaker Adam LaZarre said, “and it’s got such great acidity and structure. To me it’s the ultimate seafood wine.”

Making Albariño is the continuation of a long affair between LaZarre and Spanish grapes, one that will continue in the future. “Spanish wines are so versatile, so unlike anything else coming from anywhere in the world,” he said. “There’s nothing like Albariño or Verdejo or even Tempranillo anywhere else. And the first time I tasted Mencía from Bierzo, the heavens opened up and the angels played trumpets.”

It’s no surprise, then, that LaZarre is bringing in some Mencía vines from Castilla y Leon this year. He and other Spanish-wine-loving vintners in the US are determined to get more varieties to these shores. Garnacha already is prevalent, although most of the cuttings in the US came from France. 

“We’re going to see more of these Spanish grapes,” LaZarre said, “and in very short order people will find out where they can grow best.”

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