“Under my skin there’s always a catch…”

by Katie Pizzuto on June 10, 2011

in Wine

Rioja is tempranillo. Tempranillo is Rioja. And when you say “Rioja” to a wine drinker, you can pretty much bank on the fact that they’re thinking red wine—it’s what the region is known for, and what the tempranillo grape creates. But it only takes one nosy winemaker to throw a wrench into everything that glues your little world of wine knowledge together. And honestly, anyone passionate about wine welcomes that wrench as an opportunity to explore. In 1988, Jesús Galilea Esteban found a cluster of white grapes on one of the tempranillo vines in his vineyard, Murillo de Rio Leza, in Rioja. Wondering what the hell white grapes were doing on a tempranillo vine, he removed the cluster and left a “heel” which in turn produced two buds of white grapes. As Charlie Sheen can tell you, two is always better than one.

But when you hand over a cluster of white tempranillo grapes to a wine region’s government agency—a region that has built its history on its red wine—the tendency is to pat you on the back, humor you as they escort you out the door, and then plan to have you committed for that lunatic babble you just spat about never-before-seen albino grapes. So while the CIDA (a Rioja government agency) busied itself for the next 18 years or so, grafting, planting, pondering and pissing away time on this mutant grape, Juan Carlos Sancha (a local oenologist) bet the farm on the tempranillo blanco, got his hands on a direct descendent of that original vine shoot, started a domaine dedicated to that funky albino grape, and began making a white red wine.

By the time 2007 rolled around, the CIDA had finally decided to anoint the tempranillo blanco an “official” Rioja grape, and at that point Juan Carlos was the only one who had it. Betting the farm apparently pays off sometimes, even when mythical, never-before-seen grapes are involved. Fast forward a few years and now a handful of winemakers are crafting their own tempranillo blanco, but make no mistake, Juan Carlos’ Ad Libitum was their inspiration. At the end of the day, how many inspirational opportunities like this exist anymore? How often do you get to taste what is, in essence, an oxymoron?

Juan Carlos initially had no competition, and given that he produces only 500 to 700 cases of tempranillo blanco a year, it pretty much opened the door for a monopoly…an expensive one at that if he was so inclined. But The 2009 Ad Libitum will only run you about $16—if you can get your hands on some, of course—because a monopoly is not what he is after. My guess is that what he’s after is a sort of global turn on…the oenological equivalent of tickling our ass with a feather. And it’s working, because his Ad Libitum is, if nothing else, magnetic.

It’s often been said in wine circles that our senses are very misleading…that we often attribute red wine characteristics to a red wine simply because we expect them to be there. They claim that if we are served red and white wines in black glasses, both at room temperature, we often can’t tell what is white and what is red simply based on aroma and taste. If ever there was a wine to screw with that theory even more, it is the tempranillo blanco, a red grape that developed a white skin, that makes a white wine that resembles a red wine. Juan Carlos’ Ad Libitum is full-bodied, spicy, wildly aromatic and somehow electric. It is a wine that, much like the civil rights movement, asks you to disregard the color of skin so that you may open yourself up to what lies beneath.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Don June 14, 2011

This seems to be an interesting new trend. People making something that isn’t what people expect. Tricking the palate so to speak. I watched Anthony Bourdain last night and he was in Spain. Seems that they don’t want to know what they are eating, because many of the chefs go to painstakingly excrutiating steps to make things that look like one thing but taste like another. I don’t get it, but ok, if that is what you’re into. Sounds like a pretty good wine.


2 Katie Pizzuto June 15, 2011

I don’t think that was really the case was this…don’t think he was out trying to “fool the palate” so to speak. I just think he genuinely stumbled on something radically different that behaved as a sort of masquerader all on its own…all he had to do was harness it and bottle it 🙂


3 Shea June 20, 2011

Very cool. If only I could get my hands on this.


4 Katie Pizzuto June 20, 2011

There are definitely white tempranillos available out there, just have to hunt online a bit (try the wine searcher in my side bar) but if you specifically want to try this, I’d sign up for Garagiste’s mailing list and hope they offer it again next year.


5 Ben Ward June 21, 2011

I once had a taste test where we served room temperature wine in very dark glasses, so I can relate with the article! It was a lot harder to tell which one was red/white, however the guy’s palates were much more accurate at the start, but as we continued with more glasses, the girls did a better job! Everyone should try it, its a lot of fun, but you have to do it with the right group!


6 Katie Pizzuto June 23, 2011

That sort of taste test is definitely an eye opener, Ben….people suddenly realize they don’t know as much about wine as they thought they did!


7 Max Kuller July 3, 2011

$16? It wholesales for $20, and the lowest online price is $30. Where are people getting this number? Pretty yummy by the way.


8 Katie Pizzuto July 5, 2011

Got it at that price through Garagiste which usually has fantastic prices for hard-to-get juice 🙂


9 Max Kuller July 3, 2011

Also- worth looking out for is the Torremilanos, Penalba Lopez Blanco from Castilla y Leon (actually Ribera del Duero, but declassified due to grapes not being legal). The 2009 is half Tempranillo Blanco, half Sauvignon Blanc fermented in and aged 8 months in French oak. Definitely a little creamier with nice spicy tropical fruit- lots of pinapple. It tends to do well with both classicists and California Chardonnay drinkers. Anyone got other good examples?


10 Katie Pizzuto July 5, 2011

Interesting, I”d have to try it to judge, but for something as unique in personality as the Tempranillo Blanco I can’t imagine marrying it with another grape for a blend…not that it won’t taste good because I’m sure it could, but simply because some things are better left alone if we are to appreciate them for what they are.


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