As far as history goes, the Pacific Northwest has little in the way of growing Tempranillo, the noble red grape of Spain’s Rioja region. But our region’s grape growers and winemakers are quick learners.
The Northwest’s first Tempranillo grapes went into the soil in 1993, when Red Willow Vineyard’s Mike Sauer planted a few test vines in Washington’s Yakima Valley. Just a couple of years later, Earl and Hilda Jones of Abacela began planting Tempranillo in earnest in Southern Oregon’s warm Umpqua Valley.
In the two decades since, Tempranillo has established itself as a favorite with growers, winemakers and consumers alike. We recently conducted a Tempranillo judging on behalf of Wine Press Northwest magazine and expected perhaps 40 examples of the wine to show up from Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Instead, we drew 72.
Most of the production of Northwest Tempranillo is in small amounts. In fact, the average case production of the wines tasted was below 250. This means most of the wines are sold directly to consumers through the wineries’ tasting rooms or wine clubs, while a small amount likely is making it to wine shops.
Here are a few of the top wines from our comprehensive Tempranillo judging. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly. And find the complete results in the latest issue of Wine Press Northwest or at www.winepressnw.com.
Eight Bells Winery 2013 Red Willow Vineyard Tempranillo, Yakima Valley, $32: The oldest Tempranillo in the Pacific Northwest is grown at famed Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley, and the owners of this small producer in Seattle have crafted a superb example that opens with aromas of ripe strawberry and oak undertones, followed by rich flavor of plump red and dark fruit, backed with hints of plum and chocolate. (14.8 percent alcohol)
Rio Vista Winery 2012 Tempranillo, Lake Chelan, $32: Owner/winemaker John Little is north of the Lake Chelan cutoff between Highway 97 and the Columbia River. This provides aromas of dark-toned fruit, toasted oak and a sprinkling of cocoa powder. It’s a rich, full and beautifully balanced red. (14.3 percent alcohol)
Upland Estates 2010 Tempranillo, Snipes Mountain, $28: Grower Todd Newhouse and winemaker Robert Smasne combine to craft one of the Northwest’s best Tempranillos. This opens with aromas of black cherry, blackberry and spice, followed by bold flavors of rich, balanced dark fruit backed by richly structured tannins. (13.8 percent alcohol)
College Cellars 2014 Anderson Vineyard Tempranillo, Walla Walla Valley, $22: Tim Donahue and his Walla Walla Community College students crafted this fresh, young wine with aromas of rose petals, cocoa powder, plum and dark cherry flavors of ripe raspberry and blueberry, all backed by supple tannins and rich acidity. (13.8 percent alcohol)
Maryhill Winery 2012 Painted Hills Vineyard Tempranillo, Columbia Valley, $24: Winemaker Richard Batchelor continues his remarkable ability to craft superb wines. This new addition to his lineup provides aromas and flavors of fruit leather, raspberry, strawberry and blueberry, all backed by firm tannins and a lengthy finish. (14.6 percent alcohol)
Burnt Bridge Cellars 2012 Tempranillo, Walla Walla Valley, $35: Based in Vancouver, Wash., Burnt Bridge is a young winery with a bright future. This opens with dark-toned aromas of huckleberry, black pepper and moist earth, followed by rich, dark, delicious flavors of blueberry, Saskatoon berry, vanilla and pipe tobacco. (14.6 percent alcohol)
Sawtooth Winery 2012 Classic Fly Series Tempranillo, Snake River Valley, $25: Meredith Smith is crafting extraordinary wines, and this Tempranillo shows what the future of the Snake River Valley could be with Spanish varieties. This opens with aromas of vanilla, chocolate and ripe red fruit, followed by bold flavors of cherry and huckleberry. (13.5 percent alcohol)
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.