Recently I made an only-at- Sunset discovery ("only" because it required a test kitchen down the hall producing Thanksgiving dinner in July): There's a wine that can multitask through all the challenging spicy, sweet, and savory sides of a turkey dinner, traditional or not, and be just plain yummy at the same time.
The wine is Tempranillo, the most important red grape in Spain, and it's starting to appear more and more from West Coast vineyards.
The potential clicked when I caught a whiff of Thanksgiving from down the hall. So I put Tempranillo to the test ― with herb-rubbed grilled turkey and herb butter-basted roasted turkey; with roasted garlic in the mashed potatoes, rosemary in the sweet potatoes, and orange zest and mustard on the green beans. It was all wonderful. The characteristic berries in the wine turned to cranberries, and the herbs to sage, in the face of Thanksgiving dinner. And a tangerine-like quality showed up in a match with citrus-laced cranberry sauce.
Tempranillo ― especially when grown here ― is both earthy and fruity. It can have a lot of plum and berry flavors, but they come along with spices and herbs and a core of bright, food-loving acid, all wrapped in velvet. Even if the wine is "big," its tannins have no claws ― like Pinot Noir without its noir side.
With such stellar qualifications, it's a little puzzling that we haven't discovered Tempranillo before now in this country, especially considering that Spain ― through those Franciscan fathers planting missions up the West Coast two centuries ago ― was the source of wine in California to begin with.
Now winemakers are starting to make up for lost Spanish-wine time.
As Steve Ventrello, winemaker and partner at Parador Cellars, puts it, "I couldn't figure out why such a major European variety that had made great wine for centuries had been virtually ignored here." He set out to rectify the situation with cuttings he picked up on a trip to Spain in 1998. They were stacked in the cellar of a major Tempranillo producer in the Ribera del Duero region, where it's the signature red wine. (Nicknamed "Samsonite cuttings" here, budwood that's made its way to this country in mysterious ways has begotten more than a few of our vineyards.)
Like Ventrello, Samuel Spencer of Spencer Roloson Winery started his Tempranillo vineyard in Lake County with suitcase cuttings from Spain. He had become convinced that, with its terrain and weather similarities to Spain, California is ideally suited to the grape, from the Oregon border to Baja.
And, as a former partner in one of San Francisco's early wine bars (Hayes & Vine), he understood how good the wine is with food. Tempranillo might not be a household word in the West yet, but Spencer senses that "it's starting to tickle people a little bit now. It could be as popular as Pinot someday."
Think of it as a new American tradition.
Because there's not a huge amount of West-produced Tempranillo in the world yet, there aren't many bargain-priced bottles. But the holidays might be the time for a little splurge.
Pagor "Vino Tinto" Tempranillo 2002 (California; $16). Terrific for the price ― simple and easy to drink, like the carafe wines you find in Spain. Hints of earthiness and baked cherries.
Barnwood "Untamed" Tempranillo 2003 (San Luis Obispo County, CA; $22). The name says it all: This is an amazingly spicy, peppery Tempranillo, with a wild, rustic character.
Parador Rancho Chimiles Vineyard Tempranillo 2003 (Napa Valley; $28). A sensational wine that could easily be mistaken for a top Tempranillo from Spain's famous Ribera del Duero region. Dense, rich cocoa notes, plus lots of spiciness and red-berry flavors.
Gundlach Bundschu Rhinefarm Vineyard Tempranillo 2003 (Sonoma Valley; $30). A good, rustic Tempranillo with hints of spice and vanilla for added dimension.
Spencer Roloson Madder Lake Vineyard Tempranillo 2003 (Clear Lake, CA; $30). The complex aromas ― of exotic spices, vanilla, licorice, and earth ― show how enticing a good Tempranillo can be. Terrific soft flavors of cocoa and berries.