Abacela Makes Spanish Wines in Southern Oregon

Abacela owner-winemaker H. Earl Jones in his Umpqua Valley vineyard. (BG)

Tempranillo and albariño are wines normally associated with the Rioja, Douro and Galicia regions of northern Spain. So what are they doing at the Abacela winery in Oregon?

Three decades ago, when Dr. H. Earl Jones, a cell biologist and medical school professor from Detroit, Michigan, prepared to leave lymphocites behind, he endeavored to find a second career that would offer him equal challenge. He found it in wine.

His favorite varietal was tempranillo, a medium-bodied red vintage beloved by the Spanish, but never attempted in the United States. “Tempranillo always has wonderful fruit characteristics,” he told me. “Every year, a ripe tempranillo will have a cherry element, plum and blackberry. A little savory element, like sage or mint. And a hint of tobacco.”

He made it his goal to produce the first great American tempranillo. “I thought it would take the rest of my life,” Jones said.

Faulty view from Cobblestone Hill. (JGA)

Climate choice

In 1986, Jones traveled to La Rioja to answer the question foremost in his mind: What made wine taste that way? Is it the soil? The elevation? What are the most important factors in producing quality wine grapes?

His model for a great tempranillo became Tinto Pesquera Gran Reserva from Bodegas Alejandro Fernandez, produced annually since 1972. For three years, Jones studied this and other wines in the Douro River valley, where grapes thrive in three different soil types above 1,500 feet. He became convinced that climate was even more important than terroir.

Assisted by his wife, Hilda, and their son, Greg, now a professor at Linfield College and a nationally acclaimed atmospheric scientist, he began to search North America for the perfect tempranillo climate. In the Umpqua Valley, near Roseburg, where wines had been produced in fits and starts since the 1880s, he found a region of cool spring and fall weather sandwiched around warm summers.

The Joneses bought 400 acres of Umpqua hillsides and benchlands in 1992. He named the vineyard Abacela, for the Spanish verb “abacelar,” meaning “to plant a grape vine.” In making his first commercial planting of tempranillo in 1995, he took cuttings that the University of California-Davis had cloned from unsuccessful tempranillo plantings in California’s Central Valley.

Jones thought he had a good wine in 1998, his second year of production. He didn’t know just how good it was, until he won the red varietal category at the 2001 San Francisco International Wine Competition. It was the first American tempranillo ever to win a gold medal in an international wine competition.

Earl’s fault

Today, nearly half of Abacela’s annual production of 11,000 cases is tempranillo, which it offers in four different styles and two additional blends. Of those now available, the 2013 Barrel Select Tempranillo ($33) earned a 90-point rating from Wine Enthusiast, and the easy-drinking Fiesta Tempranillo ($23) is fruity on the nose but with a dry finish. Abacela’s pride and joy is the Paramour Gran Reserva ($100), Jones’ nearest approximation to the Spanish Pesquera.

Tasting selection at Abacela. (BG)

Abacela sits at 43 degrees North Latitude, identical to La Rioja. Jones, now 77, has planted 76 acres with as many as 25 different varietals, and has settled upon 15 of them. Those include malbec, peppery syrah, berry-rich garnacha (grenache), smoky dolcetto, graciano, merlot and five different Portuguese port grapes, plus viognier, muscat and albariño, the latter three all white wines.

In 1999, while planting a steep new hill at a 45-degree angle, Jones discovered that his vineyards were located on a fault line where once the Oregon Coast Range had collided with the Klamath Mountains. “Then I knew I had an outdoor laboratory,” Jones said with a smile. His flat, silt-loam benchland soils were ancient sea floor. His warmer south-facing slopes and cooler north-facing slopes provided him with seven different soils and at least five climate zones.

Albariño is among the grapes thriving on the northern slopes, where its natural acidity and varietal character are preserved at lower alcohol levels. Since its first production in 2000, albariño, native to the Galicia district of northwestern Spain, has become Abacela’s second most celebrated wine (after tempranillo).

No other U.S. winery has a longer annual production of albariño, a soft, roundish white wine with aromas of peach and apricot. Abacela’s 2016 Albariño ($21), rated 92 points by Wine Enthusiast, has characteristically high acidity, lending some residual bitterness. The 2016 Albariño Private Selection ($25) has lower acidity.

2 thoughts on “Abacela Makes Spanish Wines in Southern Oregon”

  1. This excellent detail adds to the story I got when I visited the Abacela winery last fall. I haven’t found any tempranillo back home in Nashville, which leads to only one conclusion — booking another trip to Oregon. You won’t find me objecting.

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