Rioja, Oregon

abacela-vineyards
No, this is not Rioja. Yes, this is Southern Oregon.

The mother (and mother-in-law) of this blog-writing duo was born and raised in Spain and did not come to the United States until she was thirty years old.  She brought with her a fierce pride of her homeland; nowhere was this fierceness more evident than in her preferred beverage: red wine from Rioja.  She refused to drink white wine at all (“Why would I drink a white wine when I could be drinking Rioja?”).  In her later years, she also refused to drink any wine that was not from Rioja.  For many years, finding Rioja in the U.S. was no easy task as the volume of imported Spanish wine was relatively low.  “You know, there are some good California wines,” we would tell her.  She would screw up her face with outrage and say, “Oh please!”  We cannot even imagine what she would have said if we suggested she try Oregon wine; or, worse yet, an Oregon Tempranillo, which is the dominant grape varietal in red Rioja wines.

Over the past 10-15 years, the importation of Spanish wine has increased significantly, both from Rioja as well as other wine regions such as Ribera del Duero, Penedés and Rías Baixas.  Today, store shelves have many Spanish options, led by a number of labels from Rioja.  Similarly, wines from Spain appear on restaurant menus across the country.  Americans have become more familiar with and are embracing the unique aroma and flavor profile of Tempranillo.

Around the same time Mama was bemoaning the virtual absence of Rioja wines at her local liquor store and supermarket, Earl and Hilda Jones had a similar question:  why aren’t Rioja and Tempranillo part of the American premium wine scene?  Living on the East Coast at the time, the Joneses wondered why Tempranillo and other Spanish varietals were not being planted domestically.  Earl and Hilda dedicated several years to understanding the ideal growing conditions for Tempranillo and other Spanish grapes.  Ultimately, they identified the Umpqua Valley in Oregon as a suitable location; after more exploration they found the site where they would plant their vines and build their winery.  The climate in the Umpqua Valley is very similar to Spain, which may come as a surprise to those that have visited Oregon.  However, the Umpqua Valley is in the southern part of Oregon, about 3 1/2 hours driving distance from Portland, and has a decidedly different climate than the northern part of the state.

The Joneses planted their first vines in the Umpqua Valley in 1995 and made their first wine in 1996.  They named their winery Abacela, a derivation of an old Spanish and Portuguese word meaning “to plant a grapevine.”  Since then, Abacela has grown in reputation for its Spanish varietals, earning international acclaim both for its Tempranillo and its Albariño.

At the end of September we were driving from Willamette Valley back to our home in California, roughly a 7 1/2 hour drive.  We asked our B&B hosts if they had any recommendations for winery stops on the way home, and they enthusiastically recommended that we stop for a bit of wine and food at Abacela.  When we input the winery address into our GPS, it indicated that we would be driving by at exactly lunch time, which felt like fate!

We arrived at Abacela hungry and thirsty (for wine). They offered a number of food pairing and wine tasting options.  Because we wanted to have a “Rioja-type” experience, we opted not to try any of their international varietals (Merlot, Malbec, Syrah) and instead stick with the traditional red varietals from Spain. In our flight we had Graciano, Garnacha, and a couple different Tempranillos.  We paired the wine with a traditional platter of Spanish meats and cheeses.

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Queso and Jamon platter at Abacela

At the risk of Mama putting a spell on us from above, we have to say the wine was very tasty.  In Rioja, red wines are generally aged in American oak barrels, which tends to impart a sweeter flavor (vanilla) and a creamier texture.  At Abacela, the winemaker uses both French and American oak, including some new oak, which historically was not done in Rioja (older wineries often used the same barrels for decades).  We mention this not as a criticism, simply an observation for those that care about things like this.  The end result at Abacela, for all the wines we tasted, was a nice, balanced wine – nice fruit aromas and flavor with minerality and earthiness.  We took home several bottles of Abacela and look forward to doing a side-by-side tasting of their Tempranillo and some Spanish Rioja that we have at home.  In a future post we’ll share those results.

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 14, 2016

 

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