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Oregon’s Iberian Connection

The impact of Iberian grapes on the Oregon wine industry can’t be measured simply by overall production.

The state’s reputation for world-class Pinot Noir is well established, but those premium bottlings are anchored principally in the Willamette Valley. Southern Oregon vintners grow Pinot grapes, but the region’s warm, arid climate has caused many in the Umpqua and Rogue Valley American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) to explore Mediterranean varieties.

Southern French and Italian grapes are being grown with considerable success, but it’s the Spanish and Portuguese varieties, along with Syrah, that are ascendant.

Tempranillo is the leader here. Its introduction signaled the start of a spreading Iberian influence initiated by the Abacela winery more than two decades ago. Multiple producers have now dived into Albariño, Grenache/Garnacha, Mourvèdre/Monastrell, Syrah and a number of Portuguese varieties.

When Abacela’s founders, Hilda and Earl Jones, began their search for the best place to grow Tempranillo, the Umpqua Valley was far from their minds. Both scientists, they hit the books and the road, quizzing winemakers in Rioja and Ribera del Duero. They studied climate records both there and in the western U.S.

They concluded that a short growing season, preferably with a cool spring and a hot, dry summer, was optimal. They believed the lack of such conditions was the reason why efforts to make good Tempranillo in California have been hard-won.

Gentle rolling slopes covered in green vineyards
Abacela’s Cobblestone Hill, Umpqua Valley / Photo by Andrew Johnson Photography

The pair struck gold in southern Oregon, particularly around Roseburg. There, the risk of spring and autumn frost is the lowest, and deep winter freezes, the rarest. They looked for hillsides with rocky, well-drained soils and the most days of sunshine during the growing season.

The couple purchased a virgin tract of land in 1992, and began to plant in the spring of 1995. As many Rioja wines are blends, the initial vineyards had small amounts of Grenache, Mazuelo, Graciano and others, along with Tempranillo.

Two years later, the first Abacela vintage included 243 cases of Tempranillo. At least four styles of Tempranillo have been produced since, along with varietal bottlings of Grenache, Graciano, Tinta Amarela and Albariño. The producer also creates a Port-style blend of Tempranillo, Tinta Amarela, Bastardo, Tinta Cão and Touriga Naçional.

“We love Tinta Amarela as a red table wine,” says Earl, who claims to have made the country’s first varietal wine from the grape.

In 2015, the Joneses and other producers formed the Oregon Tempranillo Alliance, an organization that currently claims 38 members. At its inaugural symposium in 2018, more than 70 wines were submitted for a blind tasting, which included a few bottles of Rioja as ringers. (Full disclosure: I was on that judging panel).

A major topic at the symposium delved into various Tempranillo clones, a sign that significant progress in the vineyard is taking place. In recent vintages, Wine Enthusiast awarded 90+ scores to more than two dozen Oregon Tempranillos.

The increased interest in Spain’s leading grape has also benefited Grenache, which struggled initially in the Pacific Northwest due to harsh winters. The southern Oregon climate makes all the difference as far as its long-term potential.

Earl Jones calls it, “a great and versatile grape in our climate, as a red table wine, a rosé or in a blend.” For Abacela’s red Grenaches, he looks for well-drained, hot sites to keep the berries small. For rosés, Jones chooses deeper soils to crop up with larger berries.

“In the Applegate Valley, Grenache gives a very delicate, elegant wine with weight more like you find in Oregon Pinot Noir, but layered with a spicy, white pepper component,” –Craig Camp, general manager, Troon Vineyard

Troon Vineyard’s general manager, Craig Camp, is another Grenache booster. After he struck out with Tempranillo, Camp jumped in with almost five acres of Grenache plantings.

While he waits for those vines to bear fruit, Camp has been purchasing biodynamically farmed Grenache from the Applegate Valley winery, Cowhorn.

“In the Applegate Valley, Grenache gives a very delicate, elegant wine with weight more like you find in Oregon Pinot Noir, but layered with a spicy, white pepper component,” he says.

Troon also plans to plant 3.5 acres of Mourvèdre for similar reasons.

“We are looking to emphasize the natural acidity and moderate alcohols you find in the Applegate Valley on both of these varieties,” says Camp.

Cowhorn, Jaxon and J. Scott Cellars produce good versions of Grenache.

At Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards, owner/winemaker Stephen Reustle has tried it as a blending grape with Tempranillo. He finds the acidity of cool-climate Grenache balances Tempranillo. He says it adds a nice spicy component.

“But I was pleasantly surprised to find out how well our Grenache was as a standalone varietal [wine],” says Reustle.

Cordon pruned vine with lush green shoots
Some of Abecela’s Grenache vines in the Fault Line vineyard / Photo by Andrea Johnson Photography

Oregon’s Iberian white wine grapes

At Treos, in the southwest corner of the Willamette Valley, a cooler location allows partner/winemaker Dave Jepson to grow Albariño, arguably Spain’s most distinctive white grape.

Jepson and his Treos partners lived in Spain for a few years, where they fell in love with the wines.

“We loved the crisp, mineral-driven, higher-acid Albariños that are produced in the cooler valleys in Spain’s West Coast,” says Jepson.

Jepson intended to create a ‘tribute’ to those Spanish Albariños. He selected two cool-climate clones and cropped the yield back to promote intensity of aroma, flavor, body and finish.

Now with six vintages completed, he says he’s found a significant increase in depth and complexity of flavor as the vines have matured. Treos Albariños have scored well, where they exhibited rich fruit and vibrant acidity. Also making exemplary versions are Abacela, South Stage and J. Scott.

5 dark bottles of wine with white logo on front
Bottles of Treos’ 2017 Albariño / Photo courtesy of Treos

Umpqua Valley vintner Marc Girardet finds Tempranillo ideal for blending, but saves his best grapes for his varietal bottling.

It’s put through a Gran Reserva-style barrel aging program—three years in French oak and two in the bottle—in an attempt to accentuate notes of black tea, cigar box and leather profiles, he says. Next up for Girardet is a Tempranillo/Grenache blend, another small yet significant step along the Iberian trail.

“A critical mass is developing with Iberian varietals and blends in the Pacific Northwest,” says Kiley Evans, winemaker of 2Hawk. He worked for years previously at Abacela. “Local marketplaces are becoming somewhat crowded, and producers are beginning to look for avenues outside their local regions to market and sell their wines and grow their brands.”

Though his Raptor Ridge winery is located in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, founder/winegrower Scott Shull, sources a bit of Rogue Valley Tempranillo as a portfolio-expanding, non-Pinot Noir option.

“Southern Oregon is creating a name for itself in producing world-class Tempranillo wines, much in the way the Willamette Valley has done for Pinot Noirs,” he says.

To achieve that, Shull says that producers will need to create ample supply and deliver a consistent message to consumers.

“It only took the Willamette Valley 40 years, so it might happen in our lifetimes,” he says wryly.

The proof, as always, is in the bottle.

Recommended Tempranillo

2Hawk 2015 Darow Series Tempranillo (Rogue Valley) $49, 92 points. This reserve-level offering is subtle and complex in tones of fig, blackberry, black cherry, leather, espresso and oregano that come together beautifully. There’s no need to wait, but it should continue to drink well through 2025. Editors’ Choice.

Delfino 2016 Tempranillo (Umpqua Valley); $31, 90 points. Though slightly high toned, there’s much to like here. Black cherry fruit and a dusting of cocoa powder focus the flavors in a smooth and spicy wine. As it moves across the palate, a streak of vanilla, followed by a lingering flavor of bacon, comes up. It’s probably best to drink this now through the early 2020s.

Holloran 2015 Tempranillo (Eola-Amity Hills); $25, 90 points. Though the vineyard source is not indicated, the texture and flavors of this wine speak to biodynamic farming. It’s loaded with dark, bloody flavors and accents, along with a whiff of wet moss. On the palate, it recalls cool climate Syrah with its mix of umami, herb and cured meat flavors. Play close attention, and it will slowly reveal hidden pleasures.

Oregon Territory 2015 Tempranillo (Oregon); $20, 90 points. An outstanding value, this is the second label from Tempranillo specialist Paul O’Brien. It offers a boatload of mixed flavors and accents, with citrus, fig, cherry tobacco and bourbon tea all well represented and supported with lively acidity. Editors’ Choice.

Reustle 2015 Winemaker’s Reserve Tempranillo (Umpqua Valley); $42, 90 points. This is a dark and concentrated wine. The nose suggests sweet hay, while the palate is substantial and loaded with flavors of black raspberry, chocolate and coffee. It’s fairly tannic and the astringency should set it up well to accompany a thick cut of beef.

Recommended Grenache

Fox Farm 2015 Grenache (Rogue Valley); $35, 90 points. Co-fermented with 12% Syrah, this tasty wine opens with complex cinnamon, roasted coriander and wood smoke aromas. Mixed berry fruit flavors follow, with added brightness from using 30% whole clusters. The tannins are polished, contributing streaks of tea and tobacco.

Quady North 2017 Rosé of Grenache (Rogue Valley); $19, 90 points. One of three different 2017 rosés from Quady North, this is a low-alcohol, pale-copper-colored wine, that appears deceptively light. Yet in fact, it’s packed with flavor and displays a rich, rounded mouthfeel with a winning combination of mixed flowers, herbs and tangy cherry. The ample acidity adds a blood-orange vein to the mix.

Upper Five 2015 Grenache (Rogue Valley); $26, 89 points. Made from organically grown grapes, this supple, well-ripened wine shows the grape’s typical spicy plum and black cherry flavors. The fading color and short finish suggest drinking it sooner than later. Enjoy now–2020.

Recommended Albariño

Abacela 2017 Albariño (Umpqua Valley); $21, 92 points. Nothing has changed here in this new vintage, and that’s a good thing. Rich, leesy and dense with ripe fruit flavors of apple, pear, peach and guava, if anything it’s even more generously endowed than the glorious 2015. Refreshing minerality completes the picture. Editors’ Choice.

Treos 2016 Albariño (Willamette Valley); $25, 92 points. Once again Treos nails this wine, and in 2016 the alcohol is down and the acids up. Bracing, lemony, and drenched in lip-smacking minerality, this wine overdelivers. It’s definitely for acid lovers, but with its extraordinary detail and length, it goes well beyond just tart. Editors’ Choice.