In the early days of the Texas wine industry, pioneering winemakers would often plant the grapes they thought would sell — well-recognized varietals such as merlot, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Many of those winemakers would later conclude maybe the fruit that thrived in California didn’t take as kindly to Texas’ scorching summers and mercurial weather.


So what grapes could they grow instead? In 2005, brother and sister David and Julie Kuhlken began planning a winery in the Hill Country, Pedernales Cellars, that would use grapes from their parents’ vineyard. As they researched what to plant, one name kept coming up as particularly suitable for Texas, Julie Kuhlken says: tempranillo, or "little early one," as it’s known in Spanish.


Now, 50% of Pedernales’ estate grapes, grown at Kuhlken Vineyards nearby, are tempranillo.


Spicewood Vineyards owner Ron Yates had seen the viability of tempranillo in a hot climate for himself. Living abroad in Spain to work on his Spanish credit in college, he discovered the hardy, versatile grape was plentiful there because it didn’t seem to mind the heat the way certain varietals do.


When the opportunity came along to purchase the Spicewood winery from a couple who wanted to retire, Yates sought advice from his father’s cousin, Ed Auler, the co-owner of one of the first wineries to open in the state. Fall Creek Vineyards has been operating since 1975, and Auler had been through it all. He was blunt: "Don’t do it," Yates remembers him saying. But by then, Yates had fallen in love not just with wine but with tempranillo in particular.


"It was the whole reason I wanted to come back from Spain and grow grapes and make wine in Texas," he says of the red grape that has been a centerpiece of Spicewood’s program since his family took over the winery in 2007.


Tempranillo is the star grape for many Texas wineries beyond Spicewood and Pedernales. The Hill Country ranks second in U.S. wine tourism behind Napa Valley. Before the coronavirus shut down the region's popular tasting rooms — for now — visitors came to recognize and expect tempranillo on menus. They can say it correctly now without asking, Yates says, knowing to use the Spanish pronunciation of the double "l."


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Not all of the state’s wineries are so enthusiastic about tempranillo. Duchman Family Winery, in Driftwood, remains steadfast about Italian varietals like montepulciano. William Chris Vineyards, closer to Fredericksburg in the small town of Hye, swears by mourvèdre, another native Spanish grape known for its late ripening and lingering acidity. (William Chris makes so much of it that the winery has become the second largest producer of mourvèdre in the country.)


But even the less enthused make it, too. There are many reasons tempranillo has become so prominent and is widely grown in the Hill Country, West Texas and the Texas High Plains.


Kuhlken likes tempranillo’s versatility and expressiveness — that clusters from a distance as small as one end of the vineyard to another can taste noticeably different from each other as a result of factors such as soil and climate, even the direction of the sun. Collectively, these factors are considered "terroir." Tempranillo has such range that it can please a cabernet drinker or, alternatively, act like a lighter red wine.


In that way, she says, it’s a good grape to blend even with itself. Pedernales produces multiple of these blends, including the 2016 Texas Hill Country Tempranillo and the 2016 Texas High Plains Tempranillo. Where the grapes are grown influences the final flavor: Hill Country fruit tends to have more structure and tannins, she says, while High Plains grapes, because of cooler nights, have "more fruit expression."


"The dominant two flavor notes for tempranillo are cherry, that’s its dominant fruit note in general, and then there is something on the back end that is a chocolate-type note," she says. "The vanilla of the American oak (barrels that Pedernales ages the tempranillo blends in) makes it into a cherry chocolate cake, binding those two elements together in the wine really well."


Texas winemakers must contend with something California winemakers rarely do: fickle weather with spring cold snaps, summers of three-digit temperatures and driving rain at inopportune times. But that’s another benefit to growing tempranillo — it is generally unaffected by unexpected bouts of weather. (The disastrous late spring freeze of 2013, which led to that year’s dismal harvest, was an exception.)


Fredericksburg’s Inwood Estates is well-versed in all the ways that weather can throw a wrench in carefully laid plans, as the owner, Dan Gatlin, has been growing grapes since the launch of his first vineyard in 1981. (In Denton County, it is no longer in use.) Gatlin is a pioneer in the Texas wine industry in more ways than one: In 2000, he and lauded High Plains grape grower Neal Newsom took the first chance on tempranillo.


It was a savantlike move that helped Texas wine find its footing. He believed at the time, as many winemakers do today, that the types of soil and climate in a given wine region dictate the grape varietals that can be grown for wine. Now, Inwood produces an average of just under 1,000 cases of tempranillo a year, about 30 to 40% of the winery’s total production, Gatlin says. It’s the wine Inwood is most known for.


These days, he doesn’t think terroir — or "the magic of a certain place," as he calls it —has as much influence on wine as people want to believe. The research he’s done in the interim 20 years suggests that grape genetics and farming practices, such as keeping low the amount of clusters per vine, are far more important. Gatlin and his son, Spencer, are among the Texas winemakers unafraid to continue making cabernet. By all accounts, they excel at it.


But Gatlin recognizes the importance of tempranillo’s hardiness against unpredictable Texas weather, which can be formidable for growers.


"One of the difficulties that we do have in Texas is rain at harvest time" in late summer, he says. "It'll fill up the grapes with water and lose all the flavor concentration you wanted to gain during the year. Rain at harvest is devastating. But tempranillo seems to be more resilient to that problem."


When Yates had decided to go all in on revamping Spicewood Vineyards and putting the focus on tempranillo, Gatlin was one of his first calls. Now, he and Spicewood winemaker Todd Crowell — who helped him open namesake winery Ron Yates in 2016 — are experts in their own right. In January, Spicewood’s 2017 Texas High Plains Tempranillo won a best in class and double gold medal at the 2020 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.


Yates and I sit down to talk on the patio of his first winery months before the pandemic hits. As we taste through several years of Spicewood tempranillo, a fall breeze stirring leaves on the trees on the pastoral property, the entrepreneur with deep Texas roots reflects on how he got here. His love of wine and the way it connects people kicked off in college.


"I was supposed to be in Spain for a month in May of ’99 and back (working) at the Horseshoe Bay golf course by, like, June 3," he says. "The sons of the family we lived with grew tempranillo in the (Ribera del Duero, one of Spain’s prominent wine regions), and I just fell in love with tempranillo. In fact, Spain — with rolling hills, granite-clay-limestone soil, a hot climate — really reminded me of home. We got to hang out at the family’s vineyard and stayed for the rest of the summer. It was a blast."


He was in his late 20s when he purchased Spicewood Vineyards and otherwise didn’t have much experience running a winery, beyond reading books and visiting Napa and Sonoma valleys. He did have passion. Listening to him talk about all the nuances in, say, Spicewood’s original 2012 Tempranillo, it’s clear he still has that passion in spades.


Of Spicewood’s 30 acres of vines, 8 are devoted to tempranillo. Sibling winery Yates has 4 acres of tempranillo that he and Crowell plan to expand in the future.


To the long-haired, gregarious Yates, Texas as a leading purveyor of tempranillo and other unconventional wines — like the graciano and carignan growing at Spicewood — just makes sense.


"I think that’s why I fit with growing grapes and making wine in Texas," he says. "We’re just not the norm, and different things seem to work better here, whether they are the grapes that everybody’s heard of or not. You have to find the things that do well and take the time educating people about why you’re planting those grapes and how to pronounce them. They’ll get behind you. You know, now people come in excited to see tempranillo on your wine list."