Tempranillo Thrives Under the Radar

It’s not Cabernet, Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah. It’s something different, something new, yet something that doesn’t assault wine drinkers with its “otherness.”


Near the top of Red Willow Vineyard, just below the rustic stone chapel built by owner Mike Sauer, lies the first planting of Tempranillo grapes in the Pacific Northwest. I drove here, to the steep hills on the Wahluke Slope, on a cold, sunlit day in February with Mike and his son Jonathan, who trudged through the deep snow to point out the unique trellising that sets the vines apart from their neighbors.

Earlier, I had asked how much of the vineyard was planted to Tempranillo. “You mean how many vines?” Jonathan laughs. My question was really about acreage, but the single row at the edge of this high block is Red Willow’s full inventory. Red Willow is one of the oldest and most renowned vineyards in Washington, its vines planted more than 40 years ago when there were a scant 1,000 acres of wine grapes in the entire state. 

“We’re getting a lot of queries about Tempranillo lately,” Mike muses. “I’m beginning to think I might have missed out on something.”

Indeed, Tempranillo is gaining popularity with Washington winemakers, if only because it’s not Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah. Most wineries love a chance to offer something different, something new, yet something that doesn’t assault wine drinkers with its “otherness.” Gentle, food-friendly Tempranillo fits the bill.

The dark-skinned grape, native to the Iberian Peninsula, is not an outlier outside of the Pacific Northwest. In fact, it’s the fourth-most-planted grape in the world and is the main component in Spain’s Rioja wines. Tempranillo is a full-bodied red wine with flavors that range from dark-red fruits like black cherries and plums, to spices, herbs, tobacco, and leather.

Vintners in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley have established the wine as a regional specialty — Abacela is widely recognized as a leading producer, after owner Earl Jones planted his first vines in 1995. But in Washington, Tempranillo is still somewhat of a newbie, even though the vines at Red Willow preceded Abacela’s by two years.

When he first started out in 1973, Mike had planted just three acres of Cabernet Sauvignon on his farm, where he also grew Concord grapes and cherries. That’s a far cry from the 135 acres he has planted today. Mike credits his leap into the wine business to Walter Clore, the venerable Washington State University researcher who pioneered the industry here. That same year, Dr. Clore convinced Mike to let him put in an experimental block at Red Willow. The scientist erected a weather station, planted some 20 different varieties, and then watched to see which would thrive.

In 1978, the Sauers entered into their first contract with Associated Vintners, later known as Columbia Winery. When Master of Wine David Lake joined that group, it rose in both size and stature, and Red Willow grew along with it. By 1986, the year Mike planted the first Syrah vines in the state, the vineyard covered 30 acres. That experiment proved very successful, and as Red Willow continued to expand, Mike remained committed to exploring different varieties.

“If we were willing to try a grape in the vineyard, David Lake was willing to try it in the winery,” Jonathan says. In 1993, Mike planted Malbec, Viognier, Mourvedre — and a single row of Tempranillo. Today, the Sauers tend 16 varietals. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah dominate, followed by Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, and a handful of grapes grouped under the “others” category.

And the original 35 Tempranillo vines continue to thrive. The entire row — enough grapes to produce a single barrel of wine — goes to 8 Bells Winery, a boutique producer tucked into North Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. Co-owner Tim Bates says the wine is very popular. “It goes to our club members first, and then to the tasting room. We release it in August, and it’s gone in a few weeks.”

That early release date is one of Tempranillo’s signatures — the grape tends to ripen early and is one of the first to be harvested. “You have to be careful not to let it hang too long, because it rapidly loses its acidity,” Tim says. The team at 8 Bells — Tim, along with partners Andy Shepherd and Frank Michiels – handle the grape much like a Bordeaux variety, but because of the low acidity, “we age it in neutral barrels so it doesn’t hide.”

Today, there are a few dozen Washington wineries bottling Tempranillo, working with fruit from vineyards across the state, from Walla Walla to Lake Chelan, where Mike Scott grows one acre of the grape for his label, Martin Scott Winery. “I was drawn to the virtues of Tempranillo and its Spanish name,” he explains. “But it can be difficult to grow in Washington.” In a harsh winter, he says, it’s the first grape to suffer damage.

“I have talked to friends who have had to replant their Tempranillo after a cold snap,” he says. “But if you can bring it to the winemaking stage, you’re looking at a grape that has some really nice virtues. It has a deep, rich, red color; it has a bright feel in your mouth; and it’s quite tannic in most vintages. It’s a nice product, if you can bring it to the table.”

For larger producers like Milbrandt Vineyards, Tempranillo allows for diversification. A decade ago, Butch and Jerry Milbrandt planted three and a half acres of Tempranillo at their Wahluke Slope vineyard. “It grows really well there,” says Milbrandt Vineyards head winemaker, Emily Haines. “This past year, I liked the grape and I liked the nuances of it, so I experimented in making it into a rosé. It adds more of an herbal note to the Syrah that’s also in that blend. It adds another layer of complexity, a little bit like grapefruit, fresher, almost like cut grass. It’s very interesting. It’s unique.”

Because the vines at Milbrandt tend to produce large berries with a high ratio of juice to skins, Emily says it can be challenging to get the density she likes to see in a Tempranillo. That’s why she moved the grape into Milbrandt Traditions Rosé. “The wine is fantastic,” she says, and as rosés continue to gain popularity (Milbrandt in 2016 increased their production of rosé from 1,500 cases to 4,000), Tempranillo will remain an important part of Milbrandt’s portfolio.

Traditional Old World interpretations of Tempranillo, like a Spanish Rioja or a Bordeaux, are still popular. The Dobson family’s Rosebud Vineyard, also a Wahluke Slope site, supplies the Tempranillo for Stina’s Cellars, in Lakewood. Owner and winemaker Perry Preston says it’s one of his top three wines. The 2013 vintage earned several gold medals, and Perry sees even more promise in the 2014, which is still in the barrel. He handles the wine much like a Bordeaux variety. “I like a long, cool fermentation on the skins, as long as three weeks,” he says. He leaves the Tempranillo in a mixture of oak barrels for as long as 28 months. The result, he says, “is a dark-skinned, dark wine, fairly full-bodied,” with tones of tobacco and mint.

Most Washington vintners working with Tempranillo agree that it will remain a small part of the state’s wine production, even while they sing its praises. Scott cites the “winter peril” — the grape’s vulnerability to cold — which makes it difficult to grow in many areas. But at Red Willow, the original vines are now in their 24th season and still in demand.

Tempranillo’s roots, even here in Washington, are planted deep — even if it’s still considered up and coming.

Anne Sampson writes about wine and the people who create it from her home in Richland. She also writes about food, travel, and culture around the Northwest.

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