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A stellar array of Oregon tempranillos

There’s a lot to love about the Oregon Tempranillo Celebration, the statewide wine industry confab where all aspects of this amazing varietal are touted and tasted during a full day of seminars, held Jan. 18-20 this year, at the Ashland Hills Hotel and Suites.

With presentations from winemakers, critics, sommeliers and marketing gurus, not to mention an array of 21 wines to sample and discuss, it’s a lot to take in. At the end of the day, as I look over my wine-blotched notes, a few highlights are still legible.

Why tempranillo? This red grape native to northern Spain has taken the wine world by storm the past several years and will be the signature grape of Southern Oregon if several Rogue Valley winemakers have their way. But what is it about this grape that makes it worthy of all the hype?

Nora Lancaster, marketing director at Kriselle Cellars, says tempranillo in Oregon is “intentional.” The variety was first established in the Umpqua Valley by the Jones family, founders of Abacela, as a result of exhaustive research that revealed Southern Oregon growing conditions to be optimal for this variety.

Lancaster maintains the story of tempranillo in Oregon is part of the grape’s allure for consumers and needs to be told — right after you explain the name. Tempranillo (pronounced tempra-neo) means “little early one,” a grape that ripens early in the season. The grape has become successful in every wine-growing region of the state and, as attending Master of Wine Bree Boskov observes, gives the Oregon wine consumer something different from pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay.

The fact that tempranillo is grown in every Oregon American Viticultural Area, 78 percent in vineyard plantings of under five acres, according to a poll of OTC attendees, gives rise to many different styles of wine and flavor profiles, depending on the clone planted, vineyard location and effects of different winemaking techniques, such as choice of cooperage, blending, and ways to recombine the must and introduce oxygen during fermentation.

Seminar participants were asked to distinguish these effects in a blind tasting — all wines poured from brown-bagged bottles. Two wines from Red Lily made by Rachael Martin highlighted differences of certain tempranillo clones. Two from Abacela wines made by Andrew Wenzl showed the effect of pumping over versus punching down. Two wines from Rob Folin under his Ryan Rose label were subject to different barrel protocols.

This was the seminar when the term “vicinal diphenol cascade” sent me rushing off to the internet to purchase Clark Smith’s book on phenolic chemistry, “Postmodern Winemaking.” Martin lightened the proceedings considerably when she said of her first Red Lily tempranillo, “You can taste the fear in the 2003.”

Mind you, only a winemaker totally secure in her gumboots would ever say something as cool as that.

At lunch we faced an array of seven unidentified tempranillos, each from a different Oregon AVA, and were given the tasting task of matching each wine to its place of origin. At my table, where there were four winemakers, we managed several correct IDs, but more interesting to me was the range of flavors we identified. The Willamette Valley sample from Eola Hills had an elegant freshness and bright red fruit, while the Umpqua Valley’s Foon Estate selection was meaty and savory, and the Walla Walla vintage, Castillo del Felciana, opened up with chocolatey notes.

Our last blind tasting task of the day was to evaluate eight tempranillos to determine which were Spanish and which were from Oregon. We took them in four pairs, and through the latest classroom technology, courtesy of professor Greg Jones, director of wine education at Linfield College, were able to vote electronically to select wine A or B from each pair as the one from Oregon.

What was curious about this exercise was that each vote was evenly split, essentially half the experts in the room claiming wine A was from Oregon and the other half voting for wine B. What did our panel of experts make of that? Did it have to do with lack of old world/new world distinctions in this varietal? Some unfamiliarity with Spanish wines? In my case, it might have been palate fatigue by the time I got to my 21st pour.

Surely one takeaway from the experience is that Oregon winemakers must be doing a lot of things right for their wines to compare so favorably with the Spanish exemplars. Given the four Oregon wines we tasted — J.P. Valot’s 2016 Valcan Cellars, 2015 Coventina Vineyards made by Barrel 42 Custom Winecraft, 2015 Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards and Eric Weisinger’s 2014 Weisinger Family Winery Estate — the Oregon Wine Experience Double Gold and Best of Show winner — perhaps it’s the other way around.

What’s your take? Email MJ Daspit at mjdaspitwinot@gmail.com. For more on this topic, check out her Backstory Blog at mjdaspit.com.