Lodi vintners capture elusive joys of Tempranillo
Are there wines capable of as much inexpressible intensity as those made from the black skinned Tempranillo grape? Even wine geeks have difficulty putting a finger on exactly what makes a great Tempranillo appealing: all you know is that it feels great, it tastes great, but more often than not, is very hard to describe.
For instance, the 2010 Bokisch Vineyards Lodi Tempranillo ($21) – which represents this winery’s tenth (and probably their best!) vintage working with this native Spanish grape – is a delicious medium bodied red (meaning, not to heavy, not too light), exuding perfumes of baked berry pies of somewhat indeterminate fill (cherry, blueberry, blackberry?) along with distinct yet fleeting suggestions of red meat (like very rare roast beef). Oak barrel notes (in the Bokisch, a blend of French and American wood, about 65% new) adds light touches of cigarbox and cocoa-like warmth; and the wine feel round and fleshy in the mouth, with a springy meatiness to the texture.
One of the amazing things about wines like Bokisch Vineyards’ Tempranillo is that the varietal qualities – the berry components, the meaty texture, the tobacco notes, the feeling of fullness without the burdensome baggage of hard tannin or excessive alcohol – don’t really become obvious until you are consuming the wine with proteins. Markus and Liz Bokisch suggest pork tenderloin and chicken mole, but the Tempranillo characteristics become even more distinctive with high myoglobin red meats, such as lamb, duck or goose. Do try this combination at home!
The Bokischs are the Lodi AVA’s leading exponents of Tempranillo; but recently, two other Lodi producers of note have been sourcing from the same 3-acre east-side/Mokelumne River AVA planting originally farmed by Alan Kirschenmann (who passed away in 2004):
- The 2010 m2 Kirschenmann Vineyard Lodi Tempranillo ($24), which has more of a floral, rose petal-like aroma with just undertones of blackberry, cherry cola-like fruit, and a medium-weight body that is both zesty and meaty;
- The 2011 Fields Family Lodi Tempranillo ($22), which has been attracting quite a bit of attention lately with its lush yet densely textured layers of red berry, beef bouillon and floral (similar to m2’s a dusty rose petal-like fragrance) qualities, laudably unadorned by oak (unlike Bokisch and m2, Fields Family winemaker/co-owner Ryan Sherman utilizes no new barrels for his Tempranillo).
The vineyard that m2 winemaker/owner Layne Montgomery calls Kirschenmann was recently renamed Lot 13 by Michael McCay (of McCay Cellars), who purchased the planting (which comes with 97-year old Zinfandel vines) early last year from the Kirschenmann family. Confusingly, the Kirschenmanns also farmed a 19-acre vineyard right next door that they called the Baumbach Vineyard, which they sold last year to Tegan Passalacqua (the winemaker/vineyard manager of Turley Wine Cellars). Passalacqua now calls his property the Kirschenmann Vineyard, and so the name of this long-respected Lodi farming family will live on.
The differences between the Bokisch Tempranillo and the Tempranillos by m2 and Fields Family is that there is a tad less focus on the blue and red berry fruit qualities in the latter two, but more floral notes to go along with somewhat leaner mouth-feels. This is not to say that one is “better” than the other, because the differences are related to both farming and terroir (i.e. “sense of place”). The Kirschenmann planting sits on an exceptionally deep pocket of sandy loam, at a bend of the Mokelumne River (sometimes called the “Peninsula”) that enjoys a notably cooler climate (compared to most parts of the Lodi AVA). The Kirschenmann Tempranillo was originally planted on trellis in 1989 to Zinfandel, with the use of a very vigorous, water retentive rootstock (Freedom), and then grafted over to an unidentified clone of Tempranillo in 1999.
The Bokischs, on the other hand, have been sourcing most of their Tempranillo from their Liberty Oaks Vineyard in Lodi’s Jahant AVA, which has significantly more pinkish clay content in its sandy loam soil than what’s generally found along the Mokelumne River. Markus Bokisch originally planted this trellised vineyard in 2000, a year after planting Tempranillo in his Las Cerezas Vineyard – the latter located just a mile away from the Kirschenmann block, also in Tokay sandy loam soil.
Says Mr. Bokisch, “The first seven years, our Liberty Oaks Tempranillo was head and shoulders above our Las Cerezas because of the clay loam soil. We got more concentration of color, tannin and flavor phenolics – more ‘meat and potatoes,’ if you will – basically because clay acts like a sponge when it’s in the ground, and allows us to irrigate less. The Las Cerezas took a little more time to come around because in sandy loam it takes longer for the plants’ root structures to form. We ended up watering more just to get the leaf canopies in balance with the fruit; and when you irrigate more, it takes longer for root zones to get down deeper into the soil.”
However, according to Bokisch, “during the past four years Las Cerezas has been coming on strong, now that the vines have had the chance to mature. Suddenly, the Tempranillo that once seemed weaker in color, flavor and structure has turned into a more beautiful, more floral, delicate style of Tempranillo. So in 2010 our Lodi Tempranillo was blended with about 33% Las Cerezas (the balance coming from Liberty Oaks). In 2011, a phenomenal vintage for us, we’ll probably bottle the Las Cerezas and Liberty Oaks separately because they’re both turning into exceptional wines.”
There is also a clonal difference between the Bokisch and Kirschenmann plantings. The Bokischs, who are in Spain once or twice a year to visit family, planted their vineyards from their own massal selection (i.e. a mix of clonal variants) culled from a single vineyard in Ribera del Duero, a rocky, high plateau wine region in the center of Spain, where the purest, darkest, richest, fullest and most long lived Tempranillo based red wines have been grown for centuries.
Says Bokisch, “when you look into the history of Tempranillo in California, you read that Tempranillo was never really suited to California because it’s too warm here… that Tempranillo needs a higher elevation and continental climate, more like what you find in places like Rioja and Ribera del Duero, to retain acidity and structure.
“Two things wrong with this assumption: one, what they’re talking about is Tempranillo grown in lower San Joaquin Valley, where the temperatures are very warm, and the nights not much cooler – so of course, the resulting wines were traditionally more of ‘jug wine’ quality. Nothing like what you can get in Spain.
“In Lodi, on the other hand, you find significant diurnal fluctuation (i.e. warm days, cool nights), which gives us ideal growing conditions for Tempranillo – which is borne out by the fact that we have no problem getting it to ripen with lots of color and extraction, and very good acidity.
“Secondly, for over 100 years the Tempranillo that was grown here was what is called Valdepeñas selection, which was probably dessiminated from University of California’s Jackson Field Station in Amador County, starting way back in the 1860s, long before the Davis campus was established. No matter where you plant Valdepeñas, it makes boring, uninteresting wines. Our clonal material from Spain is night and day. Later, I gifted U.C. Davis with cuttings, and they took one of selections and turned it into what is now known as Tempranillo #12, and it is non-proprietary – now available to anyone. Our own plantings (in the Jahant, Clements Hills and Mokelumne River AVAs) remain a selección massal – a field mix similar to what you find in the best vineyards in Spain, which gives you the best wines.”
After 13 years cultivating this elusively scented grape, Bokisch now looks back at the experience with a little sense of irony concerning “state of the art” viticulture. “When I go back to Spain and see these classic old vineyards, where Tempranillo is growing on these little-tiny head trained vines – that are more like stumps, barely 12 inches off the ground – in soils even more sparse than our sandy loams, it makes you do a lot of rethinking about what we are doing here in Lodi.
“The lessons we have learned – particularly how young vines can struggle to find balance on trellis systems where every leaf is exposed to the sun – makes you think that it might make sense to go back to Tempranillo as a small head trained vine, with smaller but better balanced canopies, and withholding water to push deeper root structures. We are, in fact, planning on planting some Grenache and Petite Sirah on head trained vines in the Sloughhouse AVA (rockier soils in the foothills at the northeast corner of Lodi) later this year, and I’m thinking of throwing Tempranillo into the mix. Could be very cool!”