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Get to Know a New Side of Tempranillo

Discover fresher, lighter, New World styles of this popular red wine.

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Sip on this.
Sip on this.
Alex Ulreich

Tempranillo is Spain's second most planted grape, after the the lesser-known airén, and it is the country’s signature varietal wineone that’s a crowd-pleaser, yet also age-worthy and collectable. According to Australian economics professor Kym Anderson, global Tempranillo plantings have boomed, increasing almost fivefold between 1990 and 2010, bringing tempranillo from the world’s 24th most planted grape to the fourth.

Enthusiasts across the globe have grown particularly fond of Spain’s Rioja region, where winemakers rest tempranillo in new American oak, which lends structure and longevity to the wines, as well as a softness characterized by vanilla notes. In Rioja, red wines labeled Crianza and Reserva are required, by law, to have spent at least one year in oak; Gran Reserva signifies two years in oak. If a wine is aged only in stainless steel, it's labeled Joven.

Thanks to oak-aging, as well as central Spain’s hot climate, the tempranillo wines coming out of Rioja have traditionally been robust and high in alcohol. But a recent shift in Spanish winemaking, tending toward organic farming and fresher, younger styles of wine, is presenting the grape in new light. This new Spanish wave evolved in the last decade or so, and many of these modern wines have only recently been imported to the U.S.

A recent shift in Spanish winemaking is presenting the grape in new light.

One of Spain's most prominent producers leading this charge is an individual by the name of "Gonzalo Gonzalo," a biodynamic (all biodynamic agricultural products are, by definition, also organic) winemaker focused on low-sulfur wines like tempranillo, and the full-bodied white grape viura. Rioja, the region in which Gonzalo Gonzalo works, has one of the world's highest rates of Parkinson’s disease, according to Ross Bingham, who imports Gonzalo’s wines through his company Critical Mass Selections.

When Gonzalo’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about ten years ago, he made the connection between the illness and the use of pesticides. "His father sprayed the worst chemicals imaginable on all his vines because that’s what you did in the '70s and '80s," says Bingham. Gonzalo was inspired to go organic and natural by the 130-years-old estate López de Heredia, which had always made their wines without added yeasts or sulfur. He realized that Spanish wine had once been produced without pesticides or manipulation, and could be, again.

To be a natural winemaker in Spain is to "resurrect the culture of our abuelos," says Ramon Saavedra, who came from a family that always made small amounts of wine for their own consumption. Saavedra apprenticed at Andalucía's Barranco Oscuro, known for its natural tempranillo wines, before starting his own label, Cauzón. He emphasizes that vineyard work is just as important as what happens in the cellara practice that was forgotten as the Spanish wine industry grew and modernized. The naturalist winemaking approach is "a return to our origins, without chemicals," he continues.

Organic is only one aspect of a broader movement to update Spanish wine. In recent weeks, a group of Spanish winemakers, merchants, and journalists have released a petition aimed at changing the way Rioja wines are classified by the Denominación de Origen (DO) system. They wrote in the petition: "The Spanish wine appellation system has proved effective in protecting geographical names and origin, but it has been oblivious to soil differentiation and levels of quality. Efforts have been aimed at turning our vineyards into the world’s biggest, not the best." Instead of the current system, the petition asks for a more Burgundian approach to classifying Rioja: "Wines made anywhere in the region would be at the base; village wines would be a step above, while single-vineyard wines would be at the very top."

Vineyard work is just as important as what happens in the cellar.

Alvaro de la Viña, who imports natural Spanish wines (including Saavedra’s wine, and Malaspiedras mentioned below, through his company Selections de la Viña), feels that the petition is on the right track. "In my opinion, it’s an out-of-date and obsolete classification system," he says. "There’s a lot of politics and mixed interest. It’s a way for the DO to make money because you have to pay for each little classification that you add to your bottle."

Over on the American side, tempranillo counts a unique history. In particular, the grape has flourished in Oregon thanks to the pioneering efforts of Earl Jones of Abacela winery in the mid-'90s. Overall, the state's climate has proven favorable toward the grape, and Southern Oregon now counts 57 tempranillo producers.

Read on to discover great bottles, both classic and new, from Spain to the U.S. Experience the incredible range that tempranillo can display, from light and bright, to fruity and silky, to oaked and age-worthy.

Tempranillo Bottles to Try:

Producer: Gonzalo Gonzalo
Wine: Gran Cerdo, 2014
From: Rioja, Spain
Retail: $16

The giant pig on the label represents a bank that denied producer Gonzalo Gonzalo’s request for a business loan. But, clearly that didn't stop him. Gran Credo is fermented in cement vats, which Gonzalo installed underground for natural temperature control. Grapes are organically farmed, with no added sulfur or artificial yeast. Gonzalo bottles the juice after just nine months, resulting in an insanely drinkable, pleasant wine that tastes of pure fruit, with dark berry notes. It’s a perfect weekday wine to drink with pizza.

All photos by Alex Ulreich.

Producer: Bodegas Compañon Arrieta
Wine: Malaspiedras, 2014
From: Rioja Alavesa, Spain 
Retail: $20

Bogedas Compañon is a very small estate with rocky terrain (hence the name, meaning bad rocks, and the label design) located in Rioja Alavesa, as opposed to Rioja Alta, where classic producers Viña Ardanza and López de Heredia are situated. While the bodega's first generation of winemakers focused on farming grapes, its second generation, their children, started making bulk wine. In 2010, the third generation, led by Itxaso Compañón and Gorka Mauleon, took over, embracing fresh, low-alcohol, natural wines. They select fruit from a few older and highly-regarded vineyards, then barrel-age the wine for about nine months in neutral oak. Malaspiedras is exemplary of how fresh and lively tempranillo can be; its acidity is so vibrant that this wine demands to be paired with fatty foods, like pork or buttery roast chicken. Made without any artificial yeasts or chemicals, this is a bright tempranillo for any occasion.

Producer: Bodega Cauzón
Wine: Cauzón, 2013
From: Granada, Spain
Retail: $25

Grown organically at 1200 meters high in Granada's dry, arid Sierra Nevada mountains, Cauzón is fermented in stainless steel, then aged in used French and Hungarian oak for almost one year. Winemaker Ramon Saavedra spontaneously ferments this wine with no added sulfur, resulting in lively and fresh juice displaying pure fruit. Like most unmanipulated wines, Cauzón varies from year to year. The 2013 was juicy, but light enough to have alongside risotto or pasta, or vegetarian cuisine. The 2014, which was just been released, is more robust and tannic than the previous year, and shows a complex, salty chocolate quality.

Producer: López de Heredia
Wine: Tondonia Reserva 2003
From: Rioja, Spain
Retail: $44

If you are looking for a reasonably priced, knock-out aged Rioja that will stand up to duck and red meats, López de Hernia’s Tondonia Reserva is a classic choice. It is the bodega's flagship wine, from the largest and oldest vineyard that they own. The current vintage for this wine, 2003, saw a very hot year across Europe, and the temperature lent the juice some richness and roundness. This bottle is a beauty: smoky, almost ferrous on the nose, with fig notes, integrated, smooth tannins, and a hint of vanilla from the American oak. Drink with venison, or cellar.

Producer: Aluvion Wines
Wine: Heringer Vineyard 2013
From: Clarksburg, California
Retail: $42

Aluvion Wines' 32-year-old Clayton Kirchhoff was named one of California’s 2015 "winemakers to watch" by the San Francisco Chronicle, and one taste of this bottle, made in a Napa winery with grapes purchased from Clarksburg, makes it very clear that Kirchoff is a talent. Located near Sacramento, Clarksburg’s vineyards benefit from maritime breezes that keep the grapes cool and prevent over-ripening. Aluvion’s tempranillo has a fruity nose, followed by a zesty and rustic palate, with precise, almost stinging acidity. Kirchoff aged the wine for two years in about 20 percent new oak. As the bottle stays open, the wine really opens up, revealing notes of brambleberry, cherry, and cloves. It’s expressive, and delicious. Beginning with the 2014 vintage and onward, Kirchoff will be making tempranillo from grapes planted and grown with his family in Clarksburg, which will be labeled Kirchhoff Vineyard.

Producer: Enfield Wine Co.
Wine: Shake Ridge Ranch, 2012
From: Amador County, CA
Retail: $38

Enfield Wine Co. was founded in 2010 by John Lockwood, who spent a decade working for some of the most esteemed vineyard sites and producers in California, including Ehren Jordan, founder of Failla winery. After farming those vineyards for five years, Lockwood wanted to apply his passion for California terroir to crafting wine from the most interesting, organically-farmed vineyards around California's Sierra Foothills. This wine is made with 50 percent whole-cluster grapes (stems left on, to add rusticity and complexity), and is aged for two years in barrel, in homage to the Rioja Reserva style. The wine starts out fresh on the palate, but then tannins appear, lingering through the finish, adding a nice backbone and refreshing acidity. Pair with charcuterie.

Producer: Abacela
Wine: Barrel Select, 2012
From: Umpqua Valley, Oregon
Retail: $32

Earl Jones, founder of Abacela Winery in Southern Oregon, was one of the first to plant tempranillo in the state, starting with four acres in 1995. He spent years researching the conditions that yielded top quality tempranillo in Spain, and determined that Southern Oregon had the ideal growing season, temperature range, rainfall, and elevation. This wine is aged partly in new French oak, which lends richness and silky texture, and it has notes of black cherry, mocha, and currant. Robust and inviting, drink now with duck, or feel free to cellar.

Producer: Gramercy Cellars
Wine: Indigo Montoya Tempranillo, 2012
From: Walla Walla, Washington 
Retail: $42

Master Sommelier Greg Harrington, who previously oversaw top wine programs at restaurants around the country, founded Gramercy Cellars with his wife Pam to make limited amounts of Rhône and Bordeaux-style wines in Washington State. According to Gramercy Cellars assistant winemaker Brandon Moss, 2012 was "essentially a perfect growing season in Walla Wallawarm but not hot summer, very little rainfall followed by a cool fall with no rain." The outcome is Indigo Montoya Tempranillo, a full-bodied, almost rich wine, not too oaky, and balanced by excellent acidity. The silky tannins make it great for a dinner table featuring chicken or pork, or even spicier ingredients like olives and salami. Will age.