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Food & Drink

Value Vino: Texas tempranillo’s time to shine

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Neal Newsom, the respected High-Plains grape grower, predicts, “In 100 years, Texas will be tempranillo, and everything else will be minor varietals.” Sooner would be better.

Tempranillo is historically associated with Spain, where it is especially important in regions such as Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro. Grape guru Jancis Robinson calls it “Spain’s answer to Cabernet Sauvignon … capable of making deep-colored, long-lasting wines....” Equally important is her additional observation: “[Tempranillo’s] relatively short growing cycle allows it to thrive in the often-harsh climate of Rioja’s higher … zones …” And this is where Texas comes in. We’re familiar with harsh and high.

Yet early on, pioneer Texas winemakers were understandably more interested in so-called “noble” grapes such as cabernet and chardonnay. And while there have been successes, many have harbored lingering doubts about their long-term suitability. Newsom himself had to be convinced to plant tempranillo by a next-gen wave of winemakers. Jim and Karen Johnson of Alamosa Winery were early adopters, as was Dan Gatlin of Inwood Estate Vineyards. Acreage accumulated and awards began to pile up. It was time to taste.

The Llano Estacado Texas High Plains 2011 Cellar Reserve Tempranillo ($16.50) is what one friend calls “a walking around wine,” a quaff that doesn’t require a lot of heavy thinking. Still, it’s a friendly, well-made wine with aromas of Red Hots and bright, red cherry flavors. Its finish may be short, but you wouldn’t toss it out of bed for that alone.

Haak Winery takes a different tack with its 2012 Reddy Vineyards Texas Tempranillo ($17-$19). Its label description, “dark chocolate, strawberries, jalapeño and a hint of oak” is a tad aspirational. (Maybe chocolate-covered cherries plus some smoky earthiness on the palate and dried cherry on the nose. No jalapeños, alas.) But Haak is clearly striving for a more typical tempranillo expression by emphasizing a deeper, spicier profile.

The Becker Vineyards Texas High Plains 2012 Tempranillo Reserve ($19) sports a deep nose of dark fruits—let’s say black cherry, currant and even blueberry. On the palate, there’s an almost creamy lushness with intimations of chocolate. It trades in spice for a touch of sweetness, but most folks won’t complain—especially if they let it sit in the glass a spell.

I tasted two tempranillos from Pedernales Cellars, the 2011 Texas Tempranillo and the 2012 George Bush 25th Anniversary Reserve. They’re quite different critters, but each has its charms. The 2011 is lively and spicy on the nose with a touch of smoke and leather; flavors emphasize dark fruit, and the finish is a touch tart. The 2012 is less muscular but more elegant with its undertones of cassis—not quite typical tempranillo, but…

…. If Texas tempranillos currently lack the heft of history that is the birthright of their Spanish counterparts, it’s not for lack of trying. Give them another, oh, 20 years.

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