Recently we have run a feature on the story of Abacela, an Oregon winery specialized in Tempranillo wines. Today we will talk to Andrew Wenzl, the managing winemaker.
Good morning, Andrew, and thank you very much for your cooperation. How long have you been working at Abacela?
Good morning Aitor and thank you for your interest in Abacela. I started at Abacela in the summer of 2003. The 2002 wines were in barrel, and the 2003 were hanging on the vine. With the 2016 wines freshly pressed that means I have worked with 15 different vintages of Abacela wine.
Did you have previous experience working with Tempranillo?
No, however I worked with several warm climate varieties from Southern Oregon (Malbec, Merlot, Grenache) during the crush of 2002 when I worked at Silvan Ridge/Hinman Vineyard. As a cellar worker my input was very limited. Before Earl Jones planted Tempranillo there wasn’t any in the state, on a commercial level, so no one really had any experience with Tempranillo. Fifteen years of working with the grape has now put me in a position to fully understand it and craft beautiful wines.
Judging by its result, we can say Tempranillo has adapted really well to Southern Oregon. Is there a difference in the way you work with this varietal and the way they do in Spain?
Not only has it adapted in Southern Oregon, it has thrived! Tempranillo has really gained traction over the years, to the point where now there are 57 wineries producing varietal Tempranillo and finding success just like we have. At its simplest most wine is made in similar ways, so we have looked to Spain for vinification techniques and wine styles. Depending on the clone of Tempranillo and which program it is most likely going towards I will do either manual punchdowns, or gentle pumpovers. I also do a lot of one ton small batch fermentations which allows me to make early selections for quality. For elevage, Abacela has a higher percentage of French oak in the cellar, although I do utilize a lot of American oak too.
Oregon’s Tempranillo is different from other more popular varietals in USA, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Zinfandel?
Tempranillo does not have as long of a history in the USA as other international varieties so only time will tell. To bring more attention to Iberian varieties Earl started TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates, Producers and Amigos Society), as well as the OTA (Oregon Tempranillo Alliance.) This has gone a long way in educating our consumers as well as other winemakers. We have also demonstrated that well-structured Tempranillos age very well, on par with the finest ageworthy wines in the world.
How are your Tempranillo-based wines? What do they offer?
I have worked with nine different clones of Tempranillo across several rootstocks and numerous soil types. This lends itself well to craft four main Tempranillo wine styles. First is our Tempranillo “Fiesta” crafted to be lighter, less tannic, American oak, and ready for enjoyment upon release. While it can be enjoyed in its youth, it can also cellar for a few years. Next up the quality scale is the Tempranillo “Barrel Select” which is our flagship wine. Bigger structure and tannin, deeper fruit flavor, and some French oak influence. This wine benefits from cellar aging and many would consider a classic. Our Tempranillo “Reserve” carries block provenance, premium ripeness, and constitutes less than 10% of our production. This represents a true reserve level wine built for ageing. Lastly is our “Paramour” on par with the Gran Reservas of Spain. We consider this wine to be the pinnacle of winemaking. This particular wine is only made in exceptional years and is around 1% of our production.
How’s your work with so many different varietals. Red, White, Rosé, dessert wines…
Our vineyards are laid out like a patchwork quilt with different varieties planted with an understanding of the vineyard mesoclimes. There can be vast differences from south facing hillsides to the Northfacing hillsides. This makes it possible to grow a wide array of grapes with great success as has been demonstrated in all our 90+ point scores from major wine publications and best of class designations from international wine competitions.
During crush meticulous record keeping and great attention to detail is very important. The spectrum of varieties we grow makes the harvest season long but also very fun and rewarding. I take pride in the continuing success of all of our programs.
You also produce wines made with other red varietals? Which are the ones you prefer to work with?
There are several red grapes that are dear to me. Garnacha (Grenache) for both the rosé and red wines is a lot of fun to work with. Malbec makes wonderfully dark colored and aromatic wines. South Face Syrah grew a 95 point wine of which I am very proud, and the five Portuguese grapes we grow to make our Port (Tinta Amarela, Tinta Cao, Touriga Nacional, Bastardo, and Tinta Roriz (AKA Tempranillo). I have been making small quantities of Tannat for several years now and the potential to make a great wine is there as well.
Some of the varietals planted few years ago didn’t make it. What was the reason for it?
We have always taken great pride in matching the variety to the climate. Abacela’s vineyard is a work in progress. We removed plantings that didn’t meet our standards, and are in the process of expanding acreage of those that consistently produce world class wines. Grapes we have eliminated from our program include Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Refosco, Fresia, and Mourvedre.
What’s your preferred ageing process?
For our red wines I age them in 225L and 350L oak barrels. For the Dolcetto and Garnacha I use all neutral wood and bottle after 12 months, for the Malbec, Merlot, and Tempranillo “Fiesta”, I bottle at 15-18 months. For my “big reds” like Syrah, Tempranillo reserve, and Paramour I age 23-24 months.
How’s the elaboration of Paramour for being such an outstanding wine?
Earl had a dream to craft a Tempranillo based wine in the mold of Spain’s finest Gran Reservas. That dream was finally realized after the vineyard was 10 years old in 2005. It is not a wine that is made every year, on the contrary we wait for exceptional vintages when the vineyard gives us stellar fruit. That has now happened three times in the last 20 years. Quantity is very small, the bottles are sequentially numbered, and they can be purchased in a beautiful handmade 6 bottle wood box. It is truly an achievement that can cellar for twenty years or more. The 2005 Paramour is drinking very youthful right now, and our current release Paramour (2009) is just now approaching its drinking window.
Which part of your job you like more? The vineyards, the winery…
For me the estate vineyard and the winery are justifiably linked. It is incredible to follow the fruit through the growing season, then the winery, then bottling, and finally long term cellaring. I prefer the winery work, although I am especially fond of the harvest season which lasts for about 6 weeks.
What’s your winemaking philosophy?
Truly great wine is made in the vineyard. The best wines almost make themselves. Pick date is very important and I do individual berry analysis right before harvest. I ferment in very small batches such as 1 ton, 2 ton, and 3 ton. This allows for many cuts for quality along the process. Elevage is very important, and I have always believed in blending for quality, consistency, and house style.
What’s your personal touch to your wines? How you do you make the different from other Oregon wines?
From the very beginning the process is gentle. The whole vineyard is hand-picked, during destemming I very rarely crush the fruit so the whole berry component will approach 90%, and we are a gravity glow winery thus we don’t own a must pump. We perform punchdowns, and pump overs, and all of our red wines are pressed in a basket press. I like big but elegant wines, extracted but balanced.
We don’t work with Pinot Noir because our climate is too warm, so that makes us different. Also, who else in Oregon works with Tannat, Touriga Nacional, Garnacha, Malbec, the Portuguese grapes mentioned for our Port program, and of course Tempranillo?
How’s your kind of wine? The one you like to drink when you are not at work?
For Abacela wines I like them around 10 years of age so I am currently drinking the 2005-2007. I like to taste Tempranillo from other producers to gain more perspective and not gain a house palate. I like to experiment with odd varieties from lesser known regions. I also enjoy drinking sparkling wines with my wife.
For a profane in Oregon wines like me, what would be your advice for getting started?
My advice is go to the wineries, ask for a tour, and taste the full lineup of current releases. Buy what you like, drink what you like, and allow yourself the opportunity to be surprised!
Thank you very much, Andrew.
Photos © by Abacela Vineyards