California Tempranillo

The Spanish grape variety that's getting a lot of buzz is a work in progress.

Desite that it occupies only 942 acres of California, Tempranillo, the Spanish grape variety, is being buzzed plenty, and for producers looking for alternatives to standard red varieties, it may just be the next big thing.

I recently reviewed dozens of California Tempranillos from all over the state, and despite popular opinion, found them to be works in progress. Consensus, either critical or among growers, has not yet been reached concerning where the grapes grow best, as long as there’s enough heat to ripen them. But my main criticism is that too many Temps are one-dimensional, lacking structure and complexity. High yields are a major problem; the vines need to be aggressively managed, or else they risk greenness. Softness is also an issue, especially the more inland you go. Tempranillo tends to be low in acidity, and hotter temperatures exacerbate this problem.

“People need to watch the acidity and pH, because Tempranillo can become flabby and boring," conceded Scott Klann, the winemaker at Twisted Oak. And because consumers are unfamiliar with Tempranillo and are unwilling to pay much for it, producers can’t charge a lot, which limits how much they’re willing to invest in best practices. The result? You get what you pay for.

To combat the softness, Klann (whose The Spaniard from Calaveras County is one of the state’s best Tempranillo-based wines) acidulates it as soon as fermentation begins. Ted Henry, the winemaker at Jarvis also does and his 2008 Tempranillo is the best I’ve ever reviewed from California. “The sooner you can integrate the acid, the more balanced the wine becomes,” Henry says, adding, “If you add it later, the wine tastes disjointed.” And indeed, some of the Temps I tasted had a weird, metallic acidity that didn’t seem natural.

Most of the Temps I reviewed scored in the mid-80s. They were perfectly good wines for everyday purposes, if not priced too high. Fine examples were the Bodegas 2007 Viva Tu!, from Paso Robles (87, $28), the Curran 2006 Tempranillo, from Santa Ynez Valley (88, $28), and the Albeno Munari 2007 Tempranillo, also from Calaveras County (88, $22). I also liked a pair of wines from Tejada, in Lake County: the 2006 Tempranillo-Grenache (88, $30) and the 2005 Reserve Tempranillo-Garnacha (90, $30).

The Jarvis 2008 Tempranillo (94 points, $53) comes from grapes grown in one acre of the estate vineyard, in the Vaca Mountains northeast of Napa City. It was aged in 60 percent new French oak, instead of the 100 percent new wood Jarvis’s Cabernet Sauvignon sees. “Tempranillo takes on a new oak character more easily than Cabernet,” Henry says.

Twisted Oak’s 2007 The Spaniard is mainly Tempranillo, with smaller amounts of two Spanish varieties, Graciano and Garnacha (Grenache). It’s a bit softer than Jarvis’s Temp, but equally delicious.

I think these two Temps suggest the framework for the variety in California. We’re not likely to get the earthy masculinity of a Ribera del Duero. The future of California Tempranillo is soft, feminine and lush. But the success stories will remain more the exception than the rule.

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