Keeping Up with the Joneses
Abacela Winery Opts for Tempranillo in Oregon
Spanish Tempranillo was popular when I was in college back in the 1960s, but none of us knew its proper name. To us, it was just Rioja, it was usually good and, most importantly, it was cheap—even cheaper than the California jug wines that were our other mainstay. "Varietal" meant nothing to us. Once we graduated, we left behind the red wines of Spain, along with the other more dubious trappings of college life (roommates, spontaneous parties, short romances and bad beer). The more sophisticated pleasures of France, perhaps even Italy, beckoned.
One couple not only acquired a taste for the variety back then, but grew up loving it so much that they’ve recently gotten it into their heads to grow the stuff.
But in Oregon?
Let Hilda Jones explain. Hilda and her husband, Earl, are the winemakers at Abacela. "Earl was still a student in San Francisco when he discovered Tempranillo from Spain about 35 years ago," says Hilda. It was a very affordable wine—about $1 a bottle—with great flavors, body and structure. Well, Rioja kindled our interest, but Ribera del Duero ignited the flame. The nuances in the old Riojas are so subtle yet profound, while the fruit-driven Riberas told us that Tempranillo had promise that had not been tested outside of Spain."
In the early 1990s, the couple left the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay (and their comfortable jobs in the medical field) for the Pacific Northwest. "We wanted to do something different that we loved and that was a challenge, and Earl had always thought about a winery all our own," she recalls. "So in 1989, with thoughts of retirement one day, and weather without humidity, fire ants, mosquitoes, poisonous snakes and hurricanes, we began our search for land where we could pursue our dream."
Tempranillo? Why would first-time winemakers pick such a relatively unknown variety?
"We felt that the consumer was ready for something different," explains Jones. "If you were going to start a winery, would you go to California and try to break into the market by making Cabernet and competing with all the big guys, or would you plant grapes that would produce something stellar for a niche market?"
And niche it certainly is. It took the Joneses three years to find the perfect site to start their winery. Studying climactic data that helped them match varietal and climate brought them to the Umpqua Valley, in southwestern Oregon. Here, near the town of Roseburg, modern (i.e., post-Prohibition) winemaking began in 1961 when Richard Sommer established his Hillcrest Winery. David Lett followed with Eyrie Vineyards
five years later and, soon after, Dick Erath and Dick Ponzi (who, like Sommer, hailed from the University of California at Davis) reclaimed the Willamette.
"The hundred valleys of the Umpqua," as the region is known locally, run north-south for 70 miles, in a twisted ribbon of small, lightly forested hillsides falling away to fast-moving river drainages. Fed by the snows of the Cascades, the Umpqua flows through the Coastal Range to the ocean, thus allowing maritime air to return upriver, bringing cool evening breezes in summer. "The climate in the Umpqua offers a growing season that’s very similar to that of the Ribera and the upper Ebro-Rioja Alta area," says Hilda, "including, most importantly, a long, cool ripening period to preserve the fruit intensity." Hilda and Earl planted their first vines here in 1995, on shallow, south-facing slopes.
How best to grow the variety was the next problem, especially because they were the first ones to do it in this area. "We experimented with the right trellising system, pruning of plants, hedging and thinning of canes to produce superior fruit," says Jones. The vines took so well that in two years they released their first commercial bottling, the 1997 Tempranillo.
Since quality is the couple’s number-one priority, the grapes at Abacela are picked by hand in the early morning, brought to the winery in small lugs, destemmed but not crushed, cold-soaked for three to four days, then fermented in small batches for 10 to 14 days. The three-story gravity-flow winery allows the juice to travel from one level to the next simply by hose with no need for harsh pumping.
The opulent, concentrated Abacela 1997 Tempranillo ($29), already showing hints of licorice and leather, is more precocious than the deeper, tightly packed ’98 ($29), but both are highly aromatic and already delicious. These blackberry and black-cherry-flavored wines display beautiful balance and elegance, with lively acids and fine, ripe, firm tannins. They are full-bodied but not massive. Their levels of extract and acidity, as well as their long finishes, indicate age-worthiness (especially the 1998), but only time will tell. "We can’t wait to find out what Abacela’s Tempranillos will taste like in 10 or 15 years," beams Jones.
Since those first plantings of Tempranillo, Abacela’s eclectic roster of varietals has grown to include Grenache, Dolcetto, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. My favorites of the 1998 vintage are the big, currant-flavored Malbec and the crisp, strawberry-scented Dolcetto.