ASHLAND — Tempranillo vines have outstripped all-comers on state wine grape-planting charts during the past decade.
The red grape with Iberian (Spain and Portugal) origins has gained considerable traction in Southern Oregon as well, and local vintners anticipate the expanding niche can augment the region's growing wine industry.
The region's climate and soils lend themselves to further tempranillo planting and development, and some winemakers believe the region could one day be as well known for tempranillo as the Willamette Valley is for pinot noir.
The Oregon Tempranillo Alliance, including 57 growers from the state's seven major American Viticultural Areas, met for the 2016 Oregon Tempranillo Celebration Friday at Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites. Winemakers traded insights and observations during what its organizers hope will become the first in an annual or biannual event.
"I think tempranillo could potentially be the signature grape of Southern Oregon," said Jamie McCleary of Jaxon Vineyards on Hughes Road. "Whether it will be we've yet to see, but that's what we're exploring today. We make wonderful tempranillo here, and how can we make it better and how can we let the world know about it."
Tempranillo acquired its name from its attributes, said Umpqua Valley wine pioneer Earl Jones of Abacela Winery. Tempra means timely and nillo was a term of endearment. The grape originated from the Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions, and clones were planted in California in the 19th century. But in 1963, tempranillo fell out of favor in the Golden State just as it was attaining global recognition, and the University of California-Davis announced it was doing no further research on tempranillo — nor pinot noir.
"I think it was a case of having the wrong clone of tempranillo and planting it in the wrong places," said Southern Oregon University climatologist Greg Jones. "The early research on it showed it didn't work. So they made an emphatic recommendation of don't grow tempranillo in California, so the variety languished and didn't get used very much before Prohibition, and after Prohibition it was used even less. There were just some things missed, and tempranillo has a long way to go to catch up to the other varieties."
Jones' father planted four acres of Clones No. 1-3 in 1995, blazing an ever-widening trail. While the varietal is still a small niche, it now accounts for about $9 million in the billion-dollar state industry.
"It's pretty clear that Oregon has some of the best-matching climates to tempranillo production in Iberia," Jones said. "We can grow these grapes and match the variety, but there are also some differences that we're going to experience over time, which will allow us to understand what Oregon can do with this variety and expand on it."
The region's array of microclimates create varying opportunities, with one vineyard's challenges differing from neighboring operations.
"The challenge isn't so much climatic as it is site-specific," McCleary said. "Soil can be an issue, wind can be an issue, bird pressure can be an issue, but all in all, we have a great climate for tempranillo."
The high clay content that creates irrigation issues for northern Rogue Valley growers has its benefits, said Scott Burns, a retired Portland State University geologist.
"On the other side, the clay gives some incredible minerals which gives incredible flavors," Burns said.
Burns said vintners are at an experimental stage, discovering which clones match their particular soil.
"You've got to find out which ones produce the best flavors on the particular soils," he said. "What is the best marriage? That will take some time."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.
A geologist talks about matching tempranillo plants to soils