Burgundians consider Pinot Noir the best red grape for their local terroir, while in many parts of Italy, it is Sangiovese. Cabernet Sauvignon is best suited to the Medoc region of Bordeaux and the Napa Valley, and the Argentines found a home for Malbec.
In Spain, the red grape found to be the most adaptable to a variety of terroirs is Tempranillo. Besides being the variety that drives Rioja and Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo can be found throughout Spain in such diverse spots as Toro, Catalonia and Navarra.
Tempranillo ripens early. Its thick-skinned berries yield deeply-colored wines with moderate to high alcohol and slightly low acidity. Tempranillo based wines are often described as smelling and tasting like ripe strawberries, while other complimentary flavor characteristics are more cabernet-like, leaning to tobacco, spice and earthy notes.
Deep color, firm tannins and robust fruit make Tempranillo an ideal candidate for blending with Garnacha (Grenache) and Monastrell (Mourvedre). Rioja reds are typically blends of Tempranillo and Garnacha. Some winemakers like to add a bit of Monastrell to give a boost to slightly under ripe Tempranillo. Monastrell is a major grape in Murcia, Jumilla and Yecla.
Rioja and Ribera del Duero are the two regions in Spain where Tempranillo shows its best. Rioja is at the apex of an inverted triangle, with the ocean at the northern end and France not far away to the northeast. Ribera del Duero is southwest of Rioja, along the river Duero. As it moves west into Portugal, the vital river, now called Douro, flows through Port country to the city of Oporto. Although the two regions are not that far apart, their Tempranillo-based wines are quite different.
|Tempranillo in Rioja|
In the Rioja Alavesa district, Tempranillo expresses itself as light and fruity, while in the Rioja Alta, traditionalists prefer a firmer more mature wine. Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero is crisp and bold with layers of bright fruit. In both regions, the presence of oak, American or French, is a game changer, demanding that the consumer know the winemaker's preferences for oak sources and the length of aging in wood.
American oak has been in Rioja wineries since the late 19th century. Winemakers believe that Tempranillo shows its best when aged in older American oak barrels. Today, however, the trend, especially in Ribera del Duero, is new French oak, forcing Riojans to follow suit. There is also a growing following for unoaked Tempranillo, especially in Joven and some Crianza wines.
Spain's consejo regulador (regulating counsel) has a system for classifying wines by aging. These are the four classifications and the official aging minimums for red wines (whites and roses are less):
Joven -- light fruity wines, with little or no oak time. Labels may indicate "roble" (oak) for those wines with a touch of oak.
Crianza -- require a minimum of 24 months aging, with at least six months in wood. Rioja and Ribera del Duero require 12 months in cask.
Reserva -- must spend a minimum of 36 months aging, with at least 12 in cask and the rest in bottle.
Gran Reserva -- required to be aged a minimum of 60 months, with at least 18 months in oak and the rest in bottle. Gran Reserva wines are rare and made only in the best vintages.
Winemakers and growers across Spain have traditionally given local names to grapes, often with the same grape having different names. In southern Spain, Tempranillo is called Cencibel, while in Ribera del Duero, the grapes goes by Tinto Fino. In Bierzo, Cigales, and Ruedo, Tempranillo is known as Tinto del Pais and in Catalonia, Tempranillo is called Ull de Liebre. Along the western side of the Iberian Peninsula, in Portugal, Tempranillo is known as Tinta Roriz, an important component of Port wine.
Garnacha and Monastrell are two grapes that blend nicely with Tempranillo, making a strong case for blends rather than a straight varietal. Least I leave you with the idea that all Spanish reds are based on those three grapes, here's a quick look at two other important Spanish red varieties. Carinena, also known in Rioja as Mazuelo, produces robust wines, especially from old vines in Priorat and Montsant. Carinena is known in France as Carignan. Mencia is a red grape with great potential, producing fresh drinkable wines, supported by refined tannins and crisp acidity. Good Mencia is being made in Bierzo and Valdeorras.
The majority of Tempranillo based wines are best enjoyed with food, the same dishes you'd match up with other robust red wines. Some of the lighter, juicier, unoaked Tempranillos are pleasureable as an aperitif, same as a white wine. Tempranillo is good with hearty casseroles, grilled meats, especially lamb. A favorite with Ribera del Duero are grilled sausages.
Next Blog: "My Life in Wine," Episode 2
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