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TAPAS, only you drink this kind

Tempranillo is Spain's most famous grape. It is grown throughout northern Spain in a climate characterized by a cool spring, a dry-hot summer and a cool, early autumn, with low growing-season rainfall and a mild winter.

The grape not only stands alone as a varietal but also provides a hint of tobacco, spice or leather when blended with other reds. The outstanding wines of Ribera Del Duero and Rioja owe their complexity to the tempranillo grape. In 1986, wine connoisseur Robert Parker compared a wine from Ribera Del Duero with the famous Bordeaux estate wine, Chateau Petrus.

Until the early 1990s, however, most tempranillo in the United States was grown in California's hot Central Valley and the fruit did not match the quality of Spanish-grown grapes. It was simply the wrong climate for the grape. California tempranillo was usually blended into jug wines.

If you draw a line around the globe at the latitude where the best tempranillo is grown in northern Spain and examine climate conditions, you discover that the closest analogy in the United States lies in Oregon, specifically in Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties.

Earl Jones of Abacela Vineyard and Winery southwest of Roseburg is a man obsessed with tempranillo. Eager to match the quality of Spanish tempranillo, Jones did extensive research on where and how the best grapes were grown. He pinpointed Southern Oregon and planted the first tempranillo vines in the Pacific Northwest in 1995 on south-facing slopes at Abacela.

In 2000, Abacela's 1998 Estate Tempranillo won a double Gold Medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, beating all 19 Spanish tempranillo entries.

Interest in making fine tempranillo grew rapidly in the western United States. Plantings of the grape increased throughout California, Oregon and Washington, and vineyards were established in Arizona and Texas. By 2006, Jones and other West Coast tempranillo growers had formed a nonprofit trade association, TAPAS — Tempranillo Advocates, Producers and Amigos Society — to promote tempranillo and other wine grape varieties from Spain and Portugal.

Ten Southern Oregon wineries are members of TAPAS: Folin Cellars, Kriselle Cellars, Red Lily Vineyards, Roxy Ann Winery, Upper Five Vineyards, Valley View Winery and Weisinger Family Winery from the Rogue Valley and Abacela, Hillcrest Vineyard & Winery and Triple Oak Vineyard in the Umpqua Valley.

TAPAS held its seventh annual Grand Wine Tasting at the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio in San Francisco on April 27. Thirty-nine wineries attended and poured the best of their current and new releases. Southern Oregon was represented by Abacela, Upper Five, Hillcrest and Triple Oak.

Upper Five offered its wonderful 2011 Tempranillo ($28) — note that fewer than six cases of this wine remain. Upper Five's 2010 Tempranillo earned 90 points from the Wine Spectator.

Triple Oak Vineyard presented a vertical tasting of its tempranillo, showcasing the 2010 ($24), 2011 ($22) and 2012 ($20) and emphasizing how well these wines age.

Hillcrest poured its 2008 Cadiz ($28), a Côte du Rhone-type tempranillo along with its 2009 Umpqua Ribera ($45), a tempranillo/cabernet sauvignon blend that seeks to emulate the best of an earthy Spanish Ribera Del Duero; the 2010 Torero Nuevo ($25); and "On the Lamb" ($36), a non-vintage blend of carignan and pinot noir humorously named for its affinity with that meat.

Abacela featured its 2009 South East Block Reserve Tempranillo ($55) and the 2011 Fiesta Tempranillo ($23) along with its 2013 Albariño ($20), a 2013 Grenache Rosé ($17) and the 2012 Estate Port ($50). The winery also previewed its soon-to-be-released 2009 Paramour ($90), a superbly-aged proprietary tempranillo gran reserva-type blend made from selected lots of grapes. Abacela has produced only one other vintage of Paramour, in 2005.

Southern Oregon is increasingly showing how well suited this area is for growing outstanding tempranillo, as well as other Iberian Peninsula varieties such as albariño, mourvedre, garnacha and verdejo. The word is getting out.

As Terry Sullivan of Upper Five Vineyard says, "We shouldn't be afraid to get out of the valley to sell, pour and promote our great wines."

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.