08/01/2013 07:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

American Tempranillo: Strong Continuing Improvement

old vine Tempranillo in Rioja

Tempranillo is one of the world's most important and noble grapes. It is capable of making complex wines with tremendous aging capacity.

The grape is the basis for Spain's greatest wines, especially from the Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions. I'm a huge fan of those wines, and know that when Tempranillo is treated right--grown in cooler climates, with reduced yields, and permitted extended barrel aging--it is capable of true magic.

As I wrote here last year, a number of American winemakers have the Tempranillo bug too. We are seeing increasing plantings in Arizona, California, Oregon, Texas and Washington State, and a growing number of bottlings from dozens of producers, even though total production levels for the Tempranillo wines being produced here are still relatively small.

I have tasted over 70 U.S. Tempranillos and Tempranillo blends since last year's report. I also moderated a panel on "Defining American Tempranillo" for the annual event of the Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society (TAPAS) held in San Francisco this past June. There I was joined by several winemakers--including Abacela's Andrew Wenzl, Markus Bokisch, Six Sigma's Matt Hughes and Louisa Sawyer-Lindquist of Verdad--who confirmed some of my speculations about where the improvements are coming from in the production of U.S. Tempranillo.

One of the problems with getting Tempranillo established in this country was that it was planted initially mainly in the hot, dry, flat Central Valley of California, where it was allowed to yield at high levels. The resulting quality was fit only for jug wine blends.

There is still a lot of the grape planted in warm regions, like Lodi and Livermore. Some good results are being obtained there by greatly limiting yields. In the last 20 years, true fans of the grape have also started growing it in cooler climates and places with dramatic diurnal temperature shifts, as well as on slopes and in higher altitudes, where the vine truly thrives.

Arizona's first plantings came in the late 1980s, and there are now several producers there, including Caduceus, Callaghan, Cimarron and Dos Cabezas. These producers are hoping to bring an upcoming edition of the TAPAS tasting to their state to highlight the strong results they're getting from the grape there.

Earl and Hilda Jones of Abacela

Earl Jones pioneered in planting Tempranillo in Oregon's Umpqua Valley in 1995 after searching the country for a climate and terrain similar to Spain's Rioja region. The resulting wines under his Abacela label continue to be among the country's best representations of the grape.

Up until the last decade, there was very little clonal material available for planting in this country. While it is estimated there are over 500 clones of Tempranillo in Spain, only three were approved and available in the U.S. until the early 2000s.

Spanish wine enthusiast Markus Bokisch planted Tempranillo in Lodi in 1999, experimenting with clonal material--what's now known as the "Duero clone"-- he brought in from Spain. That same year, Pierce Ranch introduced the grape to its vineyards in San Antonio Valley in California's Central Coast. Those grapes have been responsible for some of California's best Tempranillo bottlings, both under the Pierce Ranch label and Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard's Quinta Cruz label.

Liz and Markus Bokisch

Other exciting new plantings over the past decade have been at Six Sigma Ranch in Lake County (Duero clone), Yorba's Shake Ridge Vineyards in Amador County (Duero clone) and Verdad's Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard in Edna Valley. At the latter vineyard, planted in 2005 and certified biodynamic, the clone planted was based on cuttings taken from great Ribera del Duero producer Pesquera and originally propagated for Parador in Napa Valley.

Additional promising developments are on the winemaking side. Some are blending Tempranillo with other Spanish grapes that help add acidity and complexity, like Grenache and Graciano, the blending grapes most used in Rioja.

Perhaps most important of all is the effort to give Tempranillo additional time in barrel--vital to providing it with the slow oxygenation and time needed to soften the grape's naturally high tannins.

Experiments with longer barrel aging that are having great results include Bokisch (18 months in barrel), Verdad (18 to 24 months), Six Sigma (24 months), Quinta Cruz (24 months or more), Abacela (up to 48 months) and Core (up to 52 months).

The very best American Tempranillos I've sampled over the past year, wines that I've rated 92 points or higher, have been from Abacela (2009 Reserve), Core (2007 C3 Reserve), Quinta Cruz (2009 Reserve Pierce Ranch) and Yorba (2009 Shake Ridge Vineyards).

I've also tried very promising Tempranillos and Tempranillo blends, all rating 90 points or higher, from Bokisch, Bodega Del Sur, Fields Family, Jeremy Wine Company, Kenneth Volk, Longoria, Pierce Ranch, Turkovich Family, Twisted Oak and Verdad in California; Callaghan in Arizona; and Oregon's Folin Cellars.

The best values for American Tempranillo--i.e., those with some distribution and priced below $30--are Bokisch (averaging $18 at U.S. retailers), Quinta Cruz ($20), Fields Family ($21), Abacela ($24), Kenneth Volk ($24), Core ($25), and Verdad ($27).

For my complete tasting notes on 71 Tempranillos and Tempranillo blends from 46 American producers, see the full version of this report on my blog here.