Exploring the roots of Southern Oregon tempranillo

    Thanks to an unjustifiably supportive spouse and my generous columnist’s expense account (ha!), I am reporting to you from the Ribera de Duero region of northern Spain, the birthplace of tempranillo, where I am interning at Dominio de Cair winery for the fall harvest.

    Earl Jones of Abacela was the first to plant tempranillo (known here as Tinto del Pais) in Oregon in 1995, starting with 12 acres.

    Jones knew that the Ribera and Southern Oregon shared virtually identical growing seasons, including “length of growing season, growing degree days, rainfall and wide diurnal temperature swings.” 

    Since that first planting, tempranillo has arrived in the Rogue and Applegate valleys. In 2015, Southern Oregon growers planted 145 acres of tempranillo, yielding 575 tons of grapes at a price of $1,983 per ton. Many of the clones planted in Southern Oregon originated in the Ribera, including the FPS 05 clone planted by Schultz Wines in the Applegate.

    But while the grapes may be the same, growing methods are very different. In Southern Oregon, rows of tempranillo look much like any other variety: head high, vertical shoot positioned or cordon trained, and neatly trimmed.  

    In the Ribera, old  tempranillo vines are grown in the vaso (glass or goblet) style: waist high and shrub-like. The trunks are squat and massive; in the winter, their short, naked arms make the vines look prehistoric. Many of these vines are ancient. My host, Francisco Arranz, farms 8.6 acres scattered over four parcels. On one, the vines are more than 90 years old. These old-timers are low-producing, but they add complexity and interest to the wine.

    Regulations are also different. In Oregon, regulations tend to focus on the wine and the information disclosed on the label. The grapes themselves can be grown in whatever manner and amount the viticulturist desires. In Spain, growing techniques are tightly controlled. 

    For example, the amount per acre (3.1 tons) that Arranz will harvest this year is determined by the Consejo Regulador (Regulatory Council), which stations observers at wineries to ensure that yields are not exceeded. If a vineyard exceeds its limit, the entire load is destroyed. Once harvested, Arranz will deliver his grapes to a cooperative of small vineyard owners, which will make the wine.

    Typical tempranillo aromas and flavors include berries, plums, tobacco, vanilla, leather and herbs. Achieving those attributes, as well as balancing  sugar and acidity, requires the large daily temperature swings shared by the Ribera and Southern Oregon.  Tempranillo vines produce blue, almost black grapes in very tight clusters. According to Jones, those hot dry days and cool dry nights also prevent botrytis or other cluster rot diseases.

    While pinot noir remains the king of wine in Oregon, tempranillo is rapidly gaining traction, as evidenced by the recently formed Oregon Tempranillo Alliance and Tapas. International Tempranillo Day is Thursday, Nov. 10. Contact Kriselle Cellars for details. But don’t wait. Enjoy a glass now, and imagine yourself in España.

    — Kevin Breck is a Jacksonville freelance writer and winemaker in training. Reach him at rogue.enofiles@gmail.com.

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