In vino veritas et felicitas
Tale of two Tempranillos: Texas vs. Rioja
By: Shankar Chaudhuri
It’s hard to conceive of Texas and wine, let alone its association with Tempranillo, the signature wine of Rioja, Spain. Yet most Americans are unaware that Texas has played an important role in wine and wine making.
Texas was the site of the first vineyard established in North America by Franciscan priests in the mid seventeenth century. Today it is one of the ten largest wine-producing states in the U.S. and earned the honor of the Wine Enthusiast magazine’s 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations in 2014.
The wine world also owes a huge debt to Texas because of the works of wine horticulturalist Thomas Volney Munson. In the late nineteenth century, France’s and much of the world’s vines were destroyed by the Phylloxera disease. It was the pioneering efforts of Munson who had already established breeding programs to develop the most disease-resistant cultivars in Texas that came to the rescue. Munson had discovered that grafting American rootstock of the Texan variety to European vinifera stopped the disease. The rootstock was not only resistant to Phylloxera but it could also be used to graft different varieties of grapes. Using the Munson-developed rootstocks, France and the other countries were able to stop the disease and save their vineyards from total devastation. For his effort, Munson was awarded the Legion of Honor, Chevalier du Merite Agricole, by the French Government.
Most of the vines that exist in France and by extension to other parts of the world today can be related to the original Texas rootstock. It’s very likely that the world’s best Bordeauxs and Burgundies have a Texas signature on them.
While the wine production had an early start in Texas, both Prohibition and the Great Depression had a devastating impact on wine growers in Texas. It was not until the nineteen seventies that Texas started making a comeback. Today the Hill Country of Texas and the High Plains have made their mark as the largest and best wine producing regions of Texas.
Both the High Plains and Hill Country of Texas have been compared to those of northern Spain in terms of climate, soil content and elevation, and in recent times wine growers in both regions have turned towards Rioja’s signature wine Tempranillo as a perfect fit for their terroir. In just the last decade, the number of wineries producing Tempranillo in Texas has grown from 2-3 in 2006 to about 60 in 2016. Texas is the US’s second-largest producer of Tempranillo after California.
Texas wineries are proud of their success in harvesting Tempranillos and claim that their products could stand up to some of the best Riojas. We wanted to verify this claim by comparing a Texas Tempranillo with a Rioja Tempranillo roughly of similar vintage characteristics and price range (approximately $15-20). We chose a 2014 Tempranillo from Becker Vineyards based in the Hill Country and a 2014 Crianza Tempranillo from Hacienda Grimon based in Jubera Valley, in the heart of Rioja.
Both are products of family owned firms that have been in business since the 1990s.
The tasting group consisted of a four-member panel: mother and daughter team of
Marie-Pascale and Marina Pieretti and a husband-wife team of Shankar and Sunita Chaudhuri.
Becker Vineyards 2014 Texas Tempranillo
As none of us had any previous experience with a Texas Tempranillo,
we wanted to begin with the Becker Tempranillo in order to give it any benefit of the doubt.
As we followed the standard practices of wine tasting, our initial reaction was one of surprise.
We had been expecting the wine to be a timid or weak version of a Rioja,
thinking that Tempranillo could only be most expressive in its original habitat.
We couldn’t have been more wrong.
This vintage hit our palate with the flavors of dried cherries, coffee and spice.
With its ruby red color, the wine had a pleasant yet young and inviting look. It had a long finish and the after-taste lingered on the palate for more than thirty seconds. The entire panel also agreed that following the initial tasting one yearned for more of this wine.
There was a distinct punch and character to this wine. Marina Pieretti thought that perhaps it stemmed from a combination of high alcohol content (14.2%) and acidity.
The consensus was that the wine complemented food quite well. We had some samples of French cheese and smoked salmon. The wine went quite well with both. The general feeling was that it would also go well with various meat and pasta-dishes.
The panel also agreed that decanting the wine for at least an hour before drinking would most likely enhance its potential and smooth out its harsher tones due to high acidity and alcohol content. It also felt that the wine was relatively young and could use some aging to improve its balance and refinement.
Hacienda Grimon Crianza 2014
With Hacienda Grimon, the panel went through the usual formalities of swirling, smelling, and sipping. Following our first sip, the general reaction was that Hacienda Grimon was “drier,” “smoother,” “more well balanced” and “more well-rounded” than the Becker Tempranillo. Marina Pieretti also thought the Hacienda Grimon was fruiter than the Becker Tempranillo. Marina’s point was particularly insightful as many Riojas are generally supplemented with Grenache or Mazuelo to soften the impact of the harshness of tannins in Tempranillos. Grimon doesn’t specifically mention on its bottle if there’s any blend of Grenache or any other reds in the wine, but it’s a standard practice among Rioja producers to blend Tempranillos with approximately 15% Grenache or Mazuelo.
The Grimon Crianza was composed of grapes from forty year-old vines, which were subsequently aged for 16 months in French and American oak. This aging process imparted a full-bodied quality to the wine. It exuded aromas of black pepper and sweet spices, unlike Becker’s spices, which tended to have a harsher note. The ripe tannins, subdued acidity, and the richness of the fruit clearly resulted in an elegant and harmonious wine. We thought that an alcohol content of 13.5% helped the wine to unfold its subtler side.
Although this family-owned business started doing business only in the 1990s, they have been the beneficiaries of the accumulated knowledge of the Rioja producers in general and the long winemaking tradition in Rioja in particular. This wine was food friendly as well and led to an enhancement to the taste in the palate as we tried the same food samples mentioned above.
So does Becker Tempranillo foot the bill as a challenger to a Rioja Tempranillo Crianza? The answer based on the panel’s feedback is a qualified “yes.” It clearly does have the tenor and characteristics of a Rioja Tempranillo, which itself is a significant achievement given the fact that Tempranillo is not indigenous to Texas and also considering the fact that it has achieved that status in the span of only one decade. However, it seems that for Becker Tempranillo to achieve parity with a Rioja Crianza, it has some ways to go. At present, Becker Tempranillo seems to be a harsher version of the Hacienda Grimon. The profile information for the wine on the Becker website is vague on its aging timeline, and only a passing reference that it has been aged predominantly in American oak. Perhaps it’s the use of both American and French Oak combined with a year plus of aging that provides Hacienda Grimon with a smoother and refined complexity over Becker Tempranillo. Hopefully with careful planning, improved aging methods and learning from the experience of successive vintages, Becker Tempranillo can achieve the desired results. Having come this far, there is no reason to doubt that it cannot do so.