12-04-2019

Not Tinto, Blanco. Tempranillo Blanco

1988 was nuts. There was the Iran-Contra Affair, the Eritrean War for Independence, the Nagorno-Karabakh War, a Kuwait Airways hijacking, an Iran Air flight shot down “accidentally” by the US, the Soviet Union launching its space shuttle, Benazir Bhutto becoming the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan as well as the first country leader to give birth while in office until Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Estonia becoming the first Soviet Republic to attempt independence from the USSR (via a “singing revolution” no less), and then George Bush I winning his first and only term as president. And those are just the events that happened as who could forget that “New Kids on the Block” released their breakthrough album, Hangin’ Tough!

Despite the insanity happening in the world, a quiet revolution came to be in a vineyard in Murillo de Río Leza, La Rioja. The owner, Jesús Galilea Esteban discovered that in an old vineyard of Tempranillo, there was a branch wherein white clusters had appeared. It was in fact, a mutation of the red grape and became known as the first existence of Tempranillo Blanco.

This isn’t really all that shocking as most every grape we have is due to either a crossing of two parent grapes or a mutation of a current grape. It’s seen no more readily than in Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris which are mutations of Pinot Noir. Given a long enough timeline, mutations happen and even if there’s not such a blatant mutation as a red grape going white, there is a great deal of clonal shift (ie milder mutation) which is why the Tempranillo of Rioja is different than that seen in say, DO Toro.

What was interesting about this mutation, is that while almost all others are from quite awhile back, this happened in a era when it could be documented, analyzed, controlled, and understood. And analyze it they did as shown by the CISC (Instituto de Ciencias de la Vid y del Vino) in 2017 when they discovered that the mutation was due to the “massive fragmentation of some of the chromosomes that are part of the organism’s genome”. Apparently it’s akin to tumor growth in humans, albeit in grapes it can merely change the color of the resulting grape and not result in well, death.

But once the mutation was fully understood via the C.I.D.A. (Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo Agrario) in La Rioja, they planted an experimental hectare of it via propagation of the original. In 2004, the initial vinifications of the grapes were trialed and the wines showed promise with good alcohol, total acidity, malic acidity, and phenolic development. They may seem academic but it has to be noted that not all mutations of vitis vinifera grapes are viable. Some are even capable of producing toxic elements (beyond “happy toxic” ethanol of course) through fermentation which is why everything is put through rigorous tests before being allowed into commercial production in the EU.

The DOC Rioja regulatory board approved the grape for use quite quickly once it was deemed a quality grape and the first varietal wine came from the winery, Ijalba in 2005. And it’s grown from there to a handful of around 10 or so monovarietal wines produced from the grape, which is impressive given that just three decades ago, when glasnost was a thing, this grape didn’t exist at all. Also interesting to note is that a Tempranillo Royo (pink berried like Pinot Gris) mutation has also been found in DO Toro but still appears to be pending certification at the DO levels.

I finally had a chance to taste a number of Tempranillo Blanco wines to see what the buzz was about and if there is a consistent profile to the wines. It turns out that there is and it’s so very much like Chenin Blanc. I mean seriously, two of the three wines below just smacked of Loire Chenin, and I mean that in a very good way. The wines (with the exception of one produced by Viña Pomal at 25€) are generally quite affordable, which is nice to see as often the “new and exciting” gets priced in silly ways due simply to scarcity. The 2016 example from Nivarius was definitely seeming a bit tired. I couldn’t tell if that was due to the winemaking or not amazing storage by the distributor as the wine by Ojuel was even a year older and still crisp, bright, and developing.

There’s quite a bit of seriousness in play around this grape and it has all the earmarks of being a high-quality offer from Rioja. It’s just hard to imagine that it all started with a single branch in a vineyard mutating but then again, that’s how all grapes started and absolutely everything we cultivate today was the cutting of one original mother plant which boggles the mind to think about. More wine, please.

WINES

Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha - Ad Libitum Tempranillo Blanco 2018
Pale lemon color. White pear and yellow apple, touch of mineral notes, briny, wet tea leaves. High acidity, medium finish, great deal of citric notes on the palate and great juiciness.
100% Tempranillo Blanco · 12.5% · 10EUR
91 2 Stars

Ojuel - Tempranillo Blanco 2015
Vibrant straw color in the glass. Lemon custard, brined lemon peel, dried apricot and peach, orange blossom, chamomile, wild yellow blossoms, and dried flowers as well, beeswax and honeycomb, touch of sandalwood, light smokiness and lanolin as it opens. High acidity, medium alcohol although notable, waxy, plush texture on the palate, plush citric fruit on the palate with long finish as well.
100% Tempranillo Blanco · 12.5% · 12EUR
91 2 Stars

Bodegas Nivarius - Tempranillo Blanco 2016
Crisp green apple, lemon peel and juice, light mineral notes, sea shell limestone, minor floral attributes, developing honey aromas. Bit flatter on the palate with lower intensity, acidity medium but falling off and shorter finish.
100% Tempranillo Blanco · 13.5% · 10EUR
87- 1 Stars