Wines are marketed to us in many different ways – by varietal (grape type), by appellation (growing region), or by some other type of descriptor such as ‘Table Wine’, ‘Cuvee ____’, ‘Meritage’, and more.
I’m generalizing here, but the point remains the same: wine names can be difficult to understand – especially when many of them mean the same thing. It’s important to understand WHY these differences in labeling occur, so that you can safely navigate a wine store or restaurant list, and hopefully find a few bargains while at it!
NEW WORLD VS. OLD
Here the ‘new world’, since we don’t limit or restrict the TYPE of grape that goes into a wine from each growing region, we generally refer to wines by there varietal (aka – grape type). Popular examples include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Chardonnay. There are still rules that you need to adhere to in order to use a specific regional designation such as ‘Napa Valley’, but these are mostly geared around the percentage of grapes used in the wine that were GROWN in that region.
In the ‘old world’ wine growing regions such as France, Italy, or Spain – wines are primarily named for the regions in which they are grown. Examples of these are Bordeaux (France), Chianti (Italy), and Rioja (Spain). In each of these regions, any wine is allowed to be grown, but in order to get the ‘certification’ to carry the name of that region (such as Bordeaux), there are requirements which must be met. These can range from limiting which specific grape types go in the wine (or at least a certain percentage thereof) or how long they are aged for.
The approved grapes which comprise the RED wines of these sample regions listed above are:
- Bordeaux = Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and/or Mourvedre
- Chianti = Sangiovese
- Rioja = Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta, Graciano, and Mazuelo
It’s important to note that there are many exceptions to the rule, and many of these ‘exceptions’ offer some of the finest wines FROM those regions. A great example of this is what is referred to as a ‘Super Tuscan’, where it is grown right along side the famous Brunellos of the world, but can’t carry the name “Brunello di Montalcino” since they usually blend in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah.
One of these interchangeably named grapes (as far as the label goes) is the Tempranillo grape. This varietal is the primary and most popular (red) grape in the regional designation of ‘Rioja’ (pronounced REE-OH-HA) in Spain or the ‘Tempranillo’ name if grown elsewhere, such as here in the US.
Simply put – Tempranillo rocks. I owe my appreciation to Rioja/Tempranillo to my buddy Brian, who hosted the first wine tasting party that I ever attended, of which the focus was on Rioja. This is a wonderful and under-appreciated grape, which hits that balance of both food-friendly and able to stand on its own. The best part is that Rioja’s are still relatively affordable, with lots of great values to be found in the $10-20 range.
Spain applies grape restrictions to the Rioja designation (Tempranillo, Garancha, and ______), as well as quality grades which allow you to quickly understand the caliber of wine that you are choosing. These would be the domestic equivalent of ‘Reserve’ or ‘Estate Grown’ here in the US.
In Spain, these quality grades are:
- Crianza – one year in cask, and at least 3 years old
- Riserva – three years old, and at least 1 in oak
- Gran Riserva – three years in bottle, and at least 2 years in oak
So what about domestic Tempranillo? Honestly, I haven’t found many Tempranillos here in the US, and I certainly haven’t tasted any that impressed me…until I tried the ’08 Picchetti Vineyards Tempranillo.
Nestled high up in the Santa Cruz mountains, Picchetti Vineyards is a family owned winery which has primarily been focusing on Italian varietals (Sangiovese, Primativo), along with some of the ‘native’ grapes that grow so well here in CA (Cabernet Sauvignion, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir). They aren’t afraid to experiment either, as they recently released a strong effort of a Malbec, as well as lesser known varietals such as Teroldego. I’ve lost count of all the different wines they make in total, and all of them are only available at the winery itself.
We stumbled upon Picchetti when we first moved to CA in 2004. It’s a very relaxing and unassuming property, especially given the fact that it bumps right up against Ridge Vineyard’s famed ‘Monte Bello’ vineyard – of which Picchetti also shares some blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon.
The tasting room is setup in a large open barn, and has a warm rustic charm to it. The team at Picchetti is ALWAYS welcoming (even with kids), and aren’t afraid to let you taste an extra wine or two – even if they aren’t actually pouring that wine that day.
After your tasting is over, you can make your way out to the shade of a GIANT eucalyptus tree in the middle of a gently sloping field where you can picnic and enjoy a nice glass of wine (I recommend the Rose’ or Chardonnay in the summer), all while the kids play and chase the chickens and peacocks that freely roam the property.
In the warmer months (June -> October), they also have live bands play every Saturday and Sunday, usually along with a local gourmet food truck too. On top of this there are plenty of great events like release parties, Halloween events, Hierloom tomato festival, and more to attend.
Personally, we just love heading up there on a Sunday afternoon with some cheese, crackers, salami, olives, grapes, and strawberries, having a glass of great local wine in the sun and playing with the kids.
I’m not surprised that I enjoyed their Tempranillo as much as I did. I love the varietal, and I find wines from the Santa Cruz mountains to have a great character to them. This is a great aspect about Picchetti’s winemaking style – they are true to their region, and don’t try to force a specific taste or style (such as a big, buttery Chard) onto their wines. They allow them to speak for the region in which they are grown, as great wine is supposed to be.
- Bright black fruits, complimented by a warm toasty oak.
- The overall fruit profile is someplace between cherries and raisins.
- There is a subtle spice, maybe white pepper. Tea leaves. Licorice.
- If there was such as thing as a lavender flavored cola – this wound be what it would smells like.
- As it opens (about 1 hr) it begins to lean toward a bit of a Zinfandel.
- It ends with a dry, dusty, beautifully long tannic finish.