News Column

Spanish Tempranillo Grape Stars in Texas Winemaking

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For two years, Neal Newsom, a well-regarded West Texas grower, stubbornly put off entreaties from a would-be Dallas winemaker in his 20s to gamble on tempranillo.

It was the late 1990s and Newsom had never heard of Dan Gatlin, nor did he like what the scion of the Hasty liquor store chain had to say -- that the dark red Spanish grape with flavor notes of blackberry and currant might someday produce the state's signature wine.

Gatlin kept nagging, but Newsom remained reluctant, explaining: "Tempranillo just had no history to speak of east of the Rockies. And it hadn't been grown at this altitude in the United States. I was just scared."

Then Gatlin made an unusual offer. He'd buy the vines, have them shipped to the High Plains from California, and supply anything else needed if Newsom contributed the labor to grow it. Gatlin would be reimbursed in grapes -- if the vines actually produced.

And they did.

Texas tempranillo has now garnered gold medals, including one at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition, and many regional winemakers are predicting it will become the state's best-known wine grape. Bobby Cox, a Fort Worth-reared winemaker and consultant, is convinced that Texas will eventually surpass California in tempranillo acreage.

"Where was tempranillo 20 years ago when I needed it?" complained Don Brady, an award-winning winemaker at California's Robert Hall Winery and owner of the Brady Vineyard label, who got his start in Lubbock. "It may well be a big part of Texas' answer to quality red wine."

Lone Star winemakers have come a long way since the 1970s, when they were advised by "experts" that only American hybrids would thrive in the state. Some did, but the wine was generally disappointing. Most switched to French and Italian varietals, which garnered respect for many wineries. Early on, Lubbock's Llano Estacado took a double gold (reflecting the judges' unanimous decision) with its chardonnay at the 1986 San Francisco Fair. But Cox said some varieties were more suited to California than Texas, or cost more to grow and yielded less.

"Everything's different here," said Cox, a Southwest High grad. "We're the yang to California's ying,"

The hunt for varieties best suited to Texas conditions continued.

Cabernet sauvignon has the most acreage in Texas, more than 500 in 2010, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The same report has only 90 acres of tempranillo, but Cox says the statistics are dramatically flawed and estimates that more than 400 acres are covered with vines bearing the Spanish grape.

Ed Hellman, a professor of viticulture at Texas Tech University, noted that the USDA survey is voluntary and has not been verified. He says tempranillo may someday overtake cabernet sauvignon in Texas because "very little cabernet is being planted and tempranillo is still being planted."

"Tempranillo has become a better grape for Texas than cabernet or merlot," insists Les Constable, an early experimenter with the Spanish variety who has tried out scores of different grapes at Brushy Creek Winery near Alvord, 55 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Alamosa Winery's Tio Pancho Ranch vineyard in San Saba County also was a tempranillo pioneer.

"Like Shiraz is for Australia and malbec for Argentina, I think Texas is going to do well with tempranillo," Constable told the Star-Telegram. "It's already a huge grape for the state."

To be sure, the grape doesn't do well in all of Texas because of the state's diverse conditions, Hellman says.

"Tempranillo is working out very, very well, but Texas is too big to have one red grape," Hellman said. While tempranillo has produced award-winning wines as far east as Boyd, Burleson and Meridian, it hasn't fared as well in the Hill Country and East Texas.

Famed Spanish grape

Gatlin said he didn't approach Newsom out of the blue. As the wine buyer for the Hasty chain, he was keen to make his own vintages, and hoped to find varieties that would suit conditions at his startup vineyards in Denton, Hunt and Dallas counties. He says he spent "seven figures" on seven vineyards testing 37 varieties.

When palomino, a white Spanish grape, did well, he thought there would be similar results for tempranillo -- which means "little early one" because it ripens before other red grapes in Spain, where it is famous for its link with the renowned Rioja and Ribero del Duero regions. But Gatlin had only mixed results in North Texas. He scouted the High Plains to buy land and ran across Newsom, an electrical engineer turned cotton farmer turned grape grower.

"I honestly didn't think it would work, especially at our altitude, 3,700 feet," said Newsom, who grows near Plains, just 15 miles from New Mexico.

Gatlin insisted, telling Newsom: "You are sitting on the best spot for tempranillo in America."

Newsom's soil was high in calcium and the area was blessed with sufficiently cool nights.

"It was 47 degrees one August night when it was in the 90s in Dallas," Gatlin recalled. Tempranillo grapes ripen unevenly, so clusters need to stay on the vine four months to allow late berries to catch up, he explained. But don't let tempranillo grapes hang 120 days in the far hotter Hill Country "or you'll have raisins," he said. Yoakum County in the High Plains south of Lubbock, by his reckoning, was perfect.

Newsom took the challenge and discovered that "tempranillo turned out to be winter hardy."

Today, he sells much of his tempranillo to Gatlin's Inwood Estate Vineyards winery in Dallas and San Martino Winery in Rockwall.

"It's just so well adapted to many parts of the state," Newsom said. "It produces high-quality wines even as a young vineyard, 3 or 4 years old, while it takes eight or 10 years to get to that level with other grapes."

And it produces better in his vineyard than cabernet. In a good year, an acre of tempranillo yields four tons while cabernet would do half that, he said. In a typical year, both fetch about $2,000 a ton, but with the Spanish grape outproducing by 2-to-1, it proved a boon for Newsom Vineyards.

A winner in Meridian

In Meridian, 65 miles southwest of Fort Worth, hockey coach turned winemaker Evan McKibben says the Red Caboose Winery harvests about two tons of tempranillo an acre. McKibben could bring the yield up to four tons with more irrigation, but then the concentrated flavor of the fruit would suffer, he said. The grafted vines are planted in rows literally carved out of limestone that drains well and provides minerals that have helped its 2009 La Reina Tempranillo get named one of the country's 10 "hottest" wine brands last year by an industry journal, Wine Business Monthly. Its Range Rider Tempranillo took a double gold at the 2012 Houston Livestock Show's international wine competition.

"People thought we were crazy when we planted vines on what had been used for cattle and a deer lease, full of cactus and cedar," said McKibben, 32, whose father, Gary, a former Dallas architect, bought the land without thinking of planting vines or making wine. The father and son started with four acres, and now have six. Slightly less than half is dedicated to tempranillo.

In a good year, clusters of tempranillo grapes are huge and their long bunch stems make them easier to pick than, say, cabernet sauvignon, Gary McKibben said.

Although they take greatest pride in wines made with the Spanish grape, the biggest seller at the winery and their Clifton tasting room is a fancifully named blend of chardonnay and zinfandel -- Hobo Hooch.

Closer to Fort Worth, Burleson's Lost Oak Winery -- formerly known as Lone Oak -- grows its own, but used grapes from Lost Draw Vineyards in the High Plains to be named best tempranillo at the 2010 San Francisco competition. Lost Oak's owner, retired Alcon Laboratories executive Gene Estes, said the winning wine, aged in American oak barrels, has a dark fruit flavor akin to cassis (black currant) and blackberries -- "with some cinnamon and cigar box undertones."

After the contest, one of the judges told Estes that most on the blind-tasting panel were convinced they were sampling a Spanish import. That particular judge himself thought it was darker than tempranillos from Spain but was surprised to learn it was made in Texas.

In Spain, a wine buyer can pay $5 for a tempranillo or as much as $500, depending on the quality, said Gatlin, whose Inwood wines of that variety start at $41. Brushy Creek in Alvord charges more than $50. Three Tempranillo wines at Lost Oak range for $24. A Lubbock winery produces a sweet tempranillo as cheap as $8 at Total Wine.

"In 100 years, Texas will be tempranillo and everything else will be minor varietals," predicted Newsom, the once hesitant High Plains grower who helped introduce the little, early ripening grape.

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