Chow Town

Taking the time to try out some Tempranillo wines

Six Sigma Vineyard Ranch in Lake County, Calif., north of Napa Valley has Kansas City ties.
Six Sigma Vineyard Ranch in Lake County, Calif., north of Napa Valley has Kansas City ties.

If you engage in social media at all, you’ve undoubtedly noticed there’s a day honoring just about everything we consume: sandwiches, oysters, tequila — you name it. In fact, I’m writing this article on National Doughnut Day, which also doubles at National Chinese Take-Out Day.

I swear I’m not making this up. Most of the time, I barely bat an eye. But one commemorative day recently got my attention — International Tempranillo Day.

First established in 2011 to toast the grand red wine grape of Spain, International Tempranillo Day 2016 is being celebrated Thursday, Nov. 10.

In its native Spain, Tempranillo is the primary grape used in the production of the great wines of Rioja and Ribera del Duero and is featured prominently in many other Spanish wine growing regions. With some 500,000 acres under vine to Tempranillo, it is the fourth most planted wine grape worldwide.

These days, this Old World variety is growing roots across the New World and can be found in at least 14 countries outside Spain, including the United States. I’ve only tasted a handful of domestic Tempranillos, so I took this occasion to try more and see what the “state in the States” was for one of my favorite red varieties.

Imagine my surprise when the first Tempranillo I tried was produced by a Kansas City native, Christian Ahlmann, whose family owns the Six Sigma Ranch in Lake County, Calif., north of Napa Valley.

“Our original Six Sigma Ranch was 60 acres on 207th and Mission. We grew corn, raised horses, and diligently pruned 50 concord grape vines for the turkeys to harvest each year just before we got to them. Still, I enjoyed pruning the vines with my father and brother each winter,” Ahlmann said.

Ahlmann said Tempranillo is very much the family’s signature grape, noting that Six Sigma was inaugurated in 2005 with its Tempranillo, a wine the Wine Enthusiast gave 91 points, calling it “the best California Tempranillo in this critic’s experience.”

I asked Ahlmann how, when, and why he and his family wound up growing grapes in California, and what he loves about working with Tempranillo? “We came to California because the climate is better (obviously!) for wine grapes,” Ahlmann said.

Ahlmann told me his parents had been planning a vineyard for decades. They came to California to find a plot in 1999. After a deal on a property in Sonoma County fell through, a 400-acre cattle ranch came on the market in Lake County. The Ahlmanns loved it, and the 76-year-old Italian bachelor who owned the land bought into Christian’s father’s plans, so a deal was struck.

“We went to work in 2000 to plant the first vineyard. We’ve since expanded to 40 planted acres, and use the remainder for grazing cattle, sheep and hogs,” Ahlmann shared.

So, why Tempranillo? “We chose Tempranillo because the high-altitude climate in Lake County reminds us of Ribera del Duero and Toro in Spain. Most notably, we have great diurnal swings in the summer, with daytime timperatures often over 100 degrees followed by 50-degree temperatures at night. That preserves the acidity in Tempranillo,” Ahlmann stated.

Ahlmann is right about his family’s Tempranillo. It’s lovely with lush ripe fruit (black cherries and plums to my palate) and soft tannins. There are also notes of earth and spice with just a hint of vanilla from the oak aging. Approachable now, I’d like to revisit it in a year or two when I believe the wine will be even better. The Ahlmanns are definitely doing Kansas City proud out in California.

My next stop on the domestic Tempranillo trail brought me to the Umpqua Valley in Southern Oregon where the Abacela Vineyards Fiesta Tempranillo was produced. I was unsure of the bottling at first as it tasted rather generic at first —pleasant enough, but nondescript.

However, when my wife and I revisited the wine about two hours later it had blossomed into a lovely expression of Tempranillo-loaded with notes of plum, cherry, cassis and spice. Soft and approachable, this medium-bodied wine is meant to be enjoyed in its youth.

I also very much liked the Tinto Especial from Vara Wines. Based in New Mexico, Vara is partnering with California growers while waiting for its own vineyards to mature. The Tinto Especial Lot #012 is a blend of Tempranillo, 60 percent; Garnacha, 28 percent; Syrah, 7 percent; and Monastrell, 5 percent.

It resembles a Spanish Tempranillo more than any domestic version I tasted, offering up a lovely combination of fruit, earth, spice and smoke. The winery says “the finish has a lingering persistence that begs for another sip.” I concur.

I tried a number of other Tempranillos and Tempranillo-based blends, that I enjoyed, but I’ll touch on one more that stood out to my palate. I’ll list the others I liked at the end of the piece.

I’ve long followed and consumed the wines of Bob Lindquist at Qupe. His Syrahs are particular favorites of mine. I didn’t realize his wife, Louisa Sawyer Lindquist, had her own label under which she produces, among other bottlings, a single vineyard Tempranillo-based red blend. The Verdad Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Tempranillo is stellar.

The wine I tasted, certified biodynamic, was composed of 90 percent Tempranillo, 5 percent Grenache and 5 percent Syrah, all from the Sawyer Linquist vineyard. Like her husband’s wines at Qupe, the Verdad Tempranillo emphasizes balance, elegance and complexity over power, extract and tannins.

Though the wines flavors and aromas are dominated by the herbs and dark, dusty fruit of the Tempranillo, the Grenache amps up the wines aromatics and the Syrah fleshes it out a bit and gives it some pleasant notes of spice. Two years of barrel aging, the first in 40 percent new oak and the second in neutral barrels, only adds to the wine’s complexity.

As promised, here are some other domestic Tempranillos I recommend: all three of the Tempranillo-based offerings from Matchbook Wine Company, Berryessa Gap’s Tempranillo, the Enriquez Estate Tempranillo (they do a lovely Tempranillo Rosato too), the Becker Reserve Tempranillo from Texas Hill Country, and many of the Tempranillo-driven red wine blends from Bodegas Paso Robles.

If you’re wondering what food to match these domestic Tempranillos with, I like them a lot with Kansas City-style barbecue. Give it a shot. I think you will too!

Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.