Tempranillo: Our signature grape?

Blame it on jet lag. Or the river of wine I drank from a long-nose spout. Or that I am in a festival-crazed city in Spain trying to navigate narrow streets and meaty menus with the few remaining wisps of my Sesame Street Español.

For whatever reason, it seems as if the nice man next to me keeps saying the same two words: Antonio Banderas. Antonio Banderas. Antonio Banderas.


Turns out, my sleep-deprived brain is not playing tricks on me. The sexy movie star owns one of the 250 bodegas in this wine-producing land along the Duero River north of Madrid. For 2,000 years, travelers and pilgrims searching for the tomb of St. James have been stopping here for rest, comfort food and intense red wine.

Surprisingly, I'm not with saints or celebrities fermenting in the fabled Ribera del Duero wine region. I'm tracking real-life, wine-loving Oregonians: Earl Jones of Abacela, Dwayne Bershaw of the Southern Oregon Wine Institute and the rest of the small delegation from Roseburg who have come here "con mucho trabajo" in mind.

The group has gathered in the colorful, culturally significant town of Aranda de Duero to cement their 4-year-old sister-city relationship. They also want to talk about a student exchange and figure out how Southern Oregon can be more like this swath of Spain.

If this steadfast group has its way, students enrolled in Umpqua Community College's viticulture, enology and language programs may soon be spending time in classrooms 6,000 miles away. Jobs, on both sides of the Atlantic, also are the goal of building wine, business and tourism relationships.

Before they are finished, the serious-minded Roseburgians will have met with the mayor and City Council (Day 1), drilled wine-school instructors and winemakers (Day 2) and talked about the future under the shadow of a heroic-sized statue of El Cid (Day 3).

Some will extend their stay into the weekend to participate in the annual Festival of the Virgin of the Vines, where to honor Aranda's patron saint and its vineyard workers, the place is smothered in confetti and vino tinto and people party in interconnected, underground tunnels and wine cellars.

Twice a day, the group will be warmly greeted by chefs who will treat them to Castilian feasts: milk-fed Churra lamb roasted over a fire made of vine branches, slabs of acorn-plumped pork and thick chunks of torta bread.

All is paired with unintimidated tempranillo and other full-bodied Spanish wines beloved by kings and Robert Parker.

Ribera del Duero and Southern Oregon have a lot in common. More prominent regions (Rioja, Willamette Valley) hang over their heads. A history of growing grapes lapsed into years of obscurity, followed by a recent revival. That's not to mention vine-loving, extreme temperature swings and success with Spain's noble red grape.

Interestingly, Ribera del Duero received its designation as a wine region in 1982, the Umpqua Valley in 1984, the Rogue Valley in 2000. Yet more than a handful of years separate them.

Wine appreciators around the world nod approvingly when they are offered Ribera del Duero's signature wine. They instantly think Vega Sicília or Tinto Pesquera or other highly praised labels.

In contrast, tempranillo is one of a giant cluster of varietals growing in Southern Oregon. Earl and Hilda Jones planted it first in Oregon in 1995. Six years later, at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, theirs was the first American winery to have its tempranillo judged superior to those from Spain.

Since then, acres of the grape have spread across the state, nurtured by commercial and hobby growers. Mercifully, it usually buds after the fear of frost and ripens early; hence, the name "temprano," which means "early."

Recently, there has been a high tempo of tempranillo activity in the valley. RoxyAnn Winery in Medford won Best of Show for its 2008 Tempranillo in the Southern Oregon World of Wine Festival. Red Lily Vineyard, which specializes in the New World version of the Spanish red, just opened its tasting room outside Jacksonville. Valley View Winery in the Applegate Valley jumped into celebrating the First Annual International Tempranillo Day Sept. 1 with food and wine tastings.

Earl Jones and others think tempranillo could become the savior, I mean, the signature grape, the pinot noir of Southern Oregon. It's too temprano to tell. But it seems the Roseburgians are on the right track.

Tempranillos to try: Rob Folin of Folin Vineyard in Gold Hill grows tempranillo for God King Slave 2009 Syrah-Tempranillo ($28; www.godkingslave.com) as well as three of his family's labels: 2009 Passive Aggressive ($18), Folin Cellars 2007 Estate Tempranillo ($30) and Folin Cellars 2007 Reserve Tempranillo ($55; www.folincellars.com).

NEWS: Lee Mankin, a retired dentist and one in the trio of grape growers who financed the first World of Wine Festival nine years ago using personal credit cards and potluck skills, has handed over the chairman reins of the nonprofit organization to Les Martin of Red Lily and David Jesser of Jacksonville Mercantile and JOBA (Jacksonville Oregon Business Association). The multiday festival focusing on wines made from Southern Oregon grapes again will be held in August in Jacksonville. Executive committee members hope to offer more sensory classes and winemaker dinners at restaurants — and fewer signs of growing pains.

EVENT: The Medford Parks and Recreation Foundation is hosting its fourth Parks Uncorked fundraiser Friday, Sept. 30, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., at the Santo Community Center, 701 N. Columbus Ave., West Medford. Tickets ($20) include appetizers, a souvenir wine glass and tastings from Del Rio Vineyards, EdenVale Winery, Foris Vineyards, Henry Estate Winery, Pebblestone Cellars, Troon Vineyard and a dozen other wine and beer producers. The money raised allows 300 local children to participate in recreation and enrichment programs. Call 541-774-2400 for more information.

Janet Eastman is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at janeteastman@mind.net or follow janeteastman on Twitter.

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