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.