Tempranillo – The NEXT hot California Varietal!

Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel are the top five most planted red grapes in California. Tempranillo, with about 1/3 of one percent, is not even close in numeric popularity but fine wine connoisseurs seem to be more and more curious about this Spanish grape.

Tempranillo vines in
Catalonia, Spain

There was mention of “Tempranilla” and “Tempraniellas” in ancient times so we know Tempranillo has been around since at least the 13th century. For many years, people thought it was related to Pinot Noir but that was debunked by researchers at The Institute of Sciences of the Vine and Wine in Rioja and the Madrid Institute for Research and Rural Development, Agriculture and Food. What they found is that Tempranillo’s parents are Albillo, a white grape that is grown today in Castilla Y León and Benedicto, a rare variety that is planted in Aragonia in eastern Spain.

Spanish conquistadors brought it to South America in the 1600’s but it did not arrive in California until the turn of the 20th century and Prohibition virtually ended its existence here before it started. There were a few scattered plantings in the 90’s but outside of a couple of producers in southern Oregon, no one took it seriously in the United States.

Ripening Tempranillo

In the meantime, Tempranillo surpassed Grenache as the most widely planted grape in Spain. Grown throughout the Iberian Peninsula, it goes by many names including Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais in Ribera del Duero, Cencibel in La Mancha, Ull de Llibre in Penedés, Tinto de Toro in Toro, and Tinta Roriz and Aragonez in Portugal. A thick-skinned grape, it thrives in climates with hot summer days and cooler nights. The calcareous limestone soils of Rioja and Ribera del Duero are where it has been made into the most complex wines.

Tempranillo marries well with oak, both French and the stronger American varieties, the latter which has been preferred among Rioja producers for decades. It often has a cola like note. It can be tannic when it is young but mellows after a few years in bottle and may also have a lot of acidity, which is a reason why it can age for many years.

Idle Hour

I think a lot of the recent curiosity among my customers has to do with travel, but also, several California winemakers have ratcheted up the ante and are making very high quality wines with this grape. We are currently carrying two at Golden Gate Wine Cellars:  Idle Hour Winery Winemaker’s Reserve and Aluvion’s 2013 bottling. Both are from vineyards in Clarksburg. Located near Sacramento, Clarksburg gets very hot during summer days but fog from the San Francisco Bay rolls in at night, cooling down the vineyards.

Both of these wines are very fine, authentic examples. Clayton Kirchhoff of Aluvion worked at Dominio de Pingus, under renowned Danish winemaker, Peter Sisseck. Along with Vega Sicilia, Pingus is considered one of the top wineries in Ribera del Duero and Kirchhoff’s excellent training is easy to recognize in Aluvion Tempranillo. Idle Hour has also received acclaim, having been awarded various gold medals at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, the largest wine competition in the world!

If these wines are any indication, Tempranillo is just getting started in California. While it accounts for a tiny proportion of grape acreage, its reputation is outpacing its production. There is a way to go before it is as popular as the big five, but as more people taste wines such as Aluvion and Idle Hour, the demand will grow and California Tempranillo just might become the “next” new hot grape!

Be sure to check out the Aluvion Tempranillo made by the SF Chronicle’s “Winemaker to Watch!”


Clayton Kirchhoff is only 33, but has gained a wealth of experience while working at Dominio de Pingus in Spain’s Ribuero del Duero region.   He is the assistant winemaker at Napa Valley’s White Rock Winery and on the side he makes his family’s Kirchhoff wines sourced from their estate property.  The name “Aluvion”  was named after the sedimentary marine deposits comprising much of the soil at the Heringer vineyard.

Aluvion 2013 Tempranillo
Retail 48.00 – GGWC 45.99
Use code ALUVION at checkout

Sourced from older vines on the Heringer property, this wine offer true “Spanish” characters of the varietal.  Deep dark hues are a clue for the intense aromas of black stone fruit, a hint of smoke meats that jump out of the glass on impact.  The wine is medium to full in body with smooth-silky texture on the mid-palate.  Lush and gorgeous black currant and dark plums with a hint of toasty vanilla greet you on the palate.  Leading into a long, but smooth, silky tannin finish.  Only 122 cases were produced of this youngster.

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