The Lone Star State doesn’t immediately come to mind when you think of red wine — let alone Tempranillo. But you may be surprised to learn that this Spanish grape variety grows well in Texas, thanks to the similarities between the southwestern state’s climate and soils to those of Rioja in central Spain. With a name that means “the little early one” in Spanish, Tempranillo is often ready for harvest in Texas as early as August.
The aromas and flavors of Texas Tempranillo mirror those of the Spanish versions. The abundance of sunshine and hot summers in Texas typically result in notes of lush, dark red fruits, along with vanilla, fresh tobacco leaves, and leather. The wines are full- to medium-bodied, well-structured, and balanced with approachable tannins. The prominent vanilla and tobacco notes in Tempranillo vary depending on how long the wine is aged in oak and the type of barrel used.
In Spain, Tempranillo is traditionally aged in American oak barrels, which typically express notes of coconut, vanilla, and dill. Chris Hornbaker, winemaker at Eden Hill Vineyard in Celina, Texas, takes a slightly different approach. “We use a mix of French and American oak barrels, or sometimes all French or all American,” he says. “It all depends on the vintage and the ripeness of the fruit.”
THE BIRTH OF TEXAS TEMPRANILLO
In the early 2000s, Dan Gatlin, winemaker at Inwood Estates Vineyards in Fredericksburg, partnered with grape grower Neal Newsom of Newsom Vineyards to commercially plant the state’s first Tempranillo grapes.
The idea took root in the early 1980s, when Gatlin began exploring the possibility of producing fine wine in Texas and establishing one of the state’s first vineyards. After many years of research, along with trial and error growing various French and Italian varieties, Gatlin decided to take a leap of faith with Spain’s beloved and signature variety. He desired a location that would combine the perfect elevation, high-mineral soils, and a balance of hot, dry summers and cool nights, and determined that Newsom Vineyards in the Texas High Plains was the ideal location to embark on his Tempranillo-growing journey.
In 2002, Gatlin and Newsom planted 3 acres of Tempranillo. The duo’s risk and hard work paid off, and six years later Inwood Estates’ first Tempranillo was released, paving the way for other Texas vintners to produce Tempranillo wines of their own. Today, Texas Tempranillo continues to make a name for itself both within the state and beyond its borders.
TEXAS WINE REGIONS
There are eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Texas. The two largest are the High Plains, located in the western part of the state, and Texas Hill Country in central Texas. More than 80 percent of the state’s grapes are planted in the High Plains. A large majority of Tempranillo is grown in this region and sold to wineries throughout the state.
Hill Country is the largest AVA in Texas and the third largest in the United States. The region is home to more than 100 wineries and vineyards, and is recognized as one of the state’s top travel destinations thanks to the notoriety of the wineries near the charming town of Fredericksburg. You will find Tempranillo wines in many tasting rooms throughout this region, made from fruit primarily sourced from the High Plains AVA.
That said, Tempranillo grows well in many parts of the state. While Gatlin has had great success with the variety in the High Plains, it need not be limited to that region. “High-quality Tempranillo is being made in wildly different conditions all across Texas,” he says.
Cheramie Law, co-founder of the Texas wine brand Cheramie Wine, agrees. “Tempranillo is a good wine to be known for in Texas because of the versatility of the grape and its ability to stand up to the Texas weather,” she says. “But Texas is a large state and the terroir is different everywhere you go. The Tempranillo grape is not finicky, and can thrive within the different terroirs of the state.”
Because Tempranillo is so food-friendly, it’s a great match for many of Texas’s signature foods, including brisket, steaks, and Tex-Mex dishes. The wine’s versatile flavor profile also pairs well with tomato-based pastas, pizza, and Spanish cheeses such as Manchego and Roncal. For those in the market for well-structured red wine similar to Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese, Texas Tempranillo is it.
Five Texas Tempranillo Wines to Try
From the pioneer grape grower Neal Newsom, this is the perfect expression of Tempranillo from nose to finish. The wine has baked cherry aromas with a whiff of tobacco, and is well-structured, with notes of black cherry, plum, dark red fruits, and fresh-cut tobacco leaf. It boasts silky tannins and a lingering finish, with a balanced, pleasing mouthfeel. Price: $34.95.
In the glass, this reserve wine displays a ruby red color with intense and inviting aromas of black cherry, vanilla, and leather. On the palate you are instantly greeted with jammy fruit notes of cherry and raspberry, and a delightful hint of cigar. The finish is smooth and long lasting, with delicate tannins. Price: $50
This estate-grown reserve has powerful aromas of black fruits and vanilla, while the palate provides lush black cherry flavors with beautiful hints of mocha and vanilla. The medium-heavy tannins give this wine the structure needed for a long and memorable finish. Price: $39
This blend of Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional showcases enticing aromas of cherry and dried herbs, and the palate presents a perfect balance of dark fruits and fresh tobacco leaf. Tannins are moderate, and the wine finishes on a long and elegant note. Price: $24.99
This wine lures you in with distinct aromas of black cherry, leather, and hints of vanilla. On the palate it shows bold fruit flavors of raspberry and black cherry, along with sweet spices. Soft tannins complement the long, silky-smooth finish. Price: $24.95