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Abacela: The Rise of Oregon Tempranillo

Abacela: The Rise of Oregon Tempranillo

Aerial helicopter view over Abacela vineyard, Umpqua Valley | Photo Credit: Abacela Winery

Split into two sections by the Umpqua River, which runs 111 miles from the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the Umpqua Valley in Southern Oregon provides uncharted wine adventures. The region spanning 65 by 25 miles grows approximately 40 grape varieties with two contrasting microclimates cooler and wetter conditions in the northern part of the valley while warmer and drier in the south.

For Earl Jones, his wine journey began when he discovered three wine regions in Spain—Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Toro. In the late 1960s, while Jones was a resident at UCSF, he was introduced to Spanish red wines, which, at the time, were a fraction of the price as compared to Napa Cabernets. These wines were great pairings with the foods Jones gravitated toward, and from there, he was hooked. As a child, agriculture was a critical part of his life as Jones’ father farmed row crops in Kentucky. Because of his love of Spanish wines and culture, he wanted to find the perfect ideal place to grow Tempranillo in the United States —one with a similar climate and growing season to Rioja and the Ribera del Duero, where the grape was producing exceptional wines.

Hilda and Earl’s goal was to produce world-class, varietally correct Tempranillo, which is a challenge in the United States. The Joneses were looking for a short growing season with a cool spring, a summer with hot days and cool nights, and a truncated fall. Through researching historical climate data, they discovered the Umpqua Valley.  

Abacela, Umpqua Valley, Southern Oregon | Photo credit: Abacela Winery

In 1995, they moved the family 2,700 miles across the country, purchased land, and planted 13 varieties, including the first Tempranillo in Oregon. They called their winery Abacela, originating from the Spanish word “abacelar,” a verb that means “to plant a grapevine.”

For the Joneses, Tempranillo was a mystery to be unlocked. “To be worthwhile, a novel wine must taste like a world standard, and for almost all varieties, that is a wine grown, produced, and bottled in its European homeland,” said Earl Jones. “Our Tempranillo tastes like Spanish Tempranillo, exhibiting typicity with an Oregon fingerprint. Planting in the right place has resulted in fruit of very high quality.”

The estate comprises complex topography with varied elevations and soil diversity due to a fault line bisecting the vineyard. The property has a range of climates within the 76 acres of vines planted. For instance, Albariño excels in the cooler areas, while Syrah and Grenache thrive on the warmest south-facing hillsides. “We are still experimenting with variety-site matching, replanting and grafting over blocks to better varieties and clones, [all] to fit the data collected by our 25 weather stations. And the slopes, aspects, and five major soil types,” said Jones.

2019 Malbec assembling | Photo credit: Abacela Winery

Abacela’s focus remains on making balanced yet expressive wines while respecting the unique terroir of Umpqua Valley. “We ferment in small batches with gentle and controlled extraction techniques to optimize aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, and structure. We use oak for élevage but are judicious with new oak to preserve the nuances of each wine,” said Gavin Joll, General Manager at Abacela.

Many of the varieties at Abacela, like Albariño, Tannat, and Grenache, are harder sells than Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. A key focus for the Joneses is to introduce these wines to consumers by showing them the history of these wines in conjunction with excellent food pairings. “Seeing a growth in popularity with these varieties over the years has been incredibly rewarding,” noted Joll.

Umpqua Valley has a rich history as a grape-growing region dating back to the first post-prohibition of wineries in 1934 while also being the birthplace of the Oregon Winegrowers in 1969. Over the last 25 years, the quality of the wines continues to grow as more consumers discover the region. Jones put it eloquently, “From Elkton in the north to Abacela in the south is traveling from Alsace to Rioja in less than an hour.”

Photo credit: Abacela Winery

Wine Recommendations

2016 Tempranillo South East Block Reserve

Dark ruby red with gorgeous blackberry and lavender aromas. Flavors of black cherry, plum, and spice box with a long finish.

2018 Tinta Amarela 

A unique and interesting variety, the wine has flavors of blueberry, black cherry, and black tea. Drink with a tapas plate of cured meats.

2017 Grenache 

Beautiful cherry red with flavors of black cherry, raspberry, and plum, while also showcasing great acidity. This wine would pair well with a pork loin.

2017 Malbec

This wine has flavors of dark stone fruit and chocolate with a soft velvety tannin structure.

2020 Grenache Rosé

Lovely flavors of grapefruit juice, pear, and a hint of strawberry. This wine would complement Thai food.

2019 Albariño 

This white has floral notes on the nose with lemon, melon, and pear flavors and a crisp finish. Drink with Mahi Mahi tacos.