Friday, November 9, 2012

International Tempranillo Day

I noticed that the Twitterverse decreed November 8 to be the 2nd International Tempranillo Day.  I'd love to celebrate with an impromptu flight to Spain but I'm afraid the closest I'm going to make it to seeing if it's raining on the plain is to fill my glass.  Spanish wines just naturally come to mind when Tempranillo is in the discussion, but I thought it might be interesting to try a rather rare BC Tempranillo along with a classic Rioja.  If the concept behind this international day is to revel in the diversity of the grape, a regional comparison sounds like a good starting point to me.

Perhaps best known for its medium tannins, acids, body, I think it's fair to say that Tempranillo is the signature grape of Spain.  Wine writer extraordinaire, Jancis Robinson, has even called it Spain's answer to Cabernet Sauvignon.  With the surge in popularity of Spanish wines over the last so many years, everyday drinkers are likely sipping the varietal a lot more than they realize.  While it's becoming more common to see Tempranillo as a varietal wine nowadays - especially when the wine comes from New World producers like California, Australia and even Canada - Spanish wines still regularly use the grape for blending.  Plus, the labels on Spanish wines generally concentrate on the regional source of the wine over the varietals themselves.

And that's pretty much where we've gone with our bottles tonight.

1282.  2001 Lopez de Herédia - Viña Tondonia Reserva (D.O.C. Rioja - Spain)

It's hard to believe that a 2001 vintage bottle is still the current release on local shelves, but that's often the case with Spanish wines - where it's customary for the wineries to do much of the ageing before a wine is released, especially with "reserva" and "grand reserva" wines where appellation laws dictate minimum ageing requirements.

I'm not familiar with Lopez de Herédia but I've learned that it is about as representative of old school Rioja winemaking as it gets.  The winery has more than 130 years of winemaking history.  Indeed, it was one of the first three wineries established in Rioja region.  Part of the growing allure for Spanish wines flows from the fact that many winemakers are adapting to the modern wine world and working on the quality of the wines being released.  Lopez de Herédia hasn't found that necessary.  Their position is that they've worked on quality all along and they continue to emphasize traditional winemaking habits.  In reviewing the 2001 Tondonia Reserva, Robert Parker (perhaps the leading arbiter of wine scores) even advised that technology is noticeable at the winery by its absence.

That statement didn't stop Parker from awarding the wine 95 points though and then declaring that it "bridled with a lovely nose of decayed red fruit, fireside hearth and a touch of mulberry and small red cherry," while tasting of crisp red fruits like strawberry and cranberry.  I can't say that I caught those notes on the nose (especially the "decayed" fruit and "fireside hearth") but I'll give him the red fruit on the palate.

As mentioned earlier, Tempranillo is often blended and that is regularly the case in Rioja - although, even when blended, the varietal traditionally forms the backbone of the wine. The 2001 Tondonia Reserva is prime example where it's 75% Tempranillo with the balance being 15% Garnacha (or Grenache) and a bit of Graciano and Mazuelo making up the remaining 10%.

1283.  2008 La Frenz Tempranillo (Naramata Bench - Okanagan Valley)

The BC bottle, on the other hand, is a 100% varietal wine.  There isn't much Tempranillo grown in the Okanagan to start but to see the grape being made into a purely varietal wine is indeed rare.  I've only run across a few other wineries - like Stag's Hollow, Twisted Tree (now Moon Curser) and Inniskillin - that have worked with the grape and I think those forays have all been fairly recent and they've all been more of a discovery process than a commitment to building a winery around the varietal.

I think a primary reason for the introduction of the grape locally is that wineries can now bank a little more reliably on the name recognition of the grape and there are some indications that the varietal might be well suited to parts of the Okanagan Valley.  The grape is known as an early ripener - which certainly suits the Okanagan - however, it can also be temperamental.  The grape likes heat for ripening but it doesn't like it too hot and it thrives in regions that have good cooling influences.  Neither drought, nor high humidity, are seen as favourable growing conditions.  In Spain, the grape is traditionally grown at higher elevations in the mountains.  The Okanagan can certainly offer those warm days and cool nights as well.  Issues for the Okanagan growers are perhaps more that the grape is particularly susceptible to disease and pests and that it doesn't like doesn't like sandy soils so much.

We're a long ways from seeing if Tempranillo can gain a foothold in the Valley's vineyards.  The La Frenz wine was all around lighter in stature and higher in acidity when compared to the Tondonia, but then the local vines are still young and won't have reached mature production levels yet.  Plus, the Spanish wine was fleshed out with the additional grapes.  It's no small fact to compare the prices of the two wines though.  The La Frenz - even with its small lot production - came in at $22 while the Rioja is more of a specialty wine at $50+.  Good thing it's a specialty kind of day.

As for our reactions, I preferred the Rioja while Boo liked the La Frenz.  Nothing new on that front.  Our palates are often found favouring the other glass.  All the more reason for us to have a full assortment of bottles available.  I think it also means that we need to add a vacation in Spain to the bucket list.

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