Friday, January 20, 2023


In every region of the wine world, there are one or two grapes that define the local wine culture. Germany is known for Riesling. Sauvignon Blanc brought New Zealand onto the world stage. Northern California identifies with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay; Bordeaux and Cabernet, Italy and Sangiovese,  Australia re-defined Syrah as Shiraz and so on.  

What red wine grape best identifies with Spain?  Could it be Garnacha, or maybe  Carinena?  Neither.  The number one Spanish red grape is Tempranillo.

Known by different names throughout the country, Tempranillo is Cencibel in southern Spain, Ull de Libre in Catalonia and in the Old Castile region of Toro, it is known as Tinta de Toro, while in Castile's Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo is called Tinto Fino.

No matter the local name, Tempranillo makes robust red wines that are treasured throughout the wine world.  On its own, Tempranillo is reminescent of fresh strawberries. But where Tempranillo shines is with other grapes. 

Tempranillo has a relatively neutral aroma and low acidity, so its best blended with complimentary grapes, like Garnacha (Grenache) or Carignan. Tempranillo is a major contributor to a Rioja blend with Graciano and Mazuelo, developing cinnamon and raisin notes supported by a velvety richness.  Extended barrel aging is another way to bring out Tempranillo's character.

Old vine Tempranillo

Tempranillo provides backbone to Rioja and Ribera del Duero, two of Spain's most respected reds.  It is the principal grape in Ribera, but sometimes combines with French varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, as in the highly vaunted Vega Sicilia. The same blending preferences apply in Navarra and La Mancha, where Tempranillo is complimentary to Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot.  

An aside.  A number of years ago, on my first trip to Rioja, I had an appointment at a small family-owned winery in Laguardia.  The name of the winery escapes me now, but the experience of approaching Laguardia late in the afternoon has stayed with me to this day. 

The road leading to Laguardia meanders across a flat plain. That day, low black clouds, pierced by rays of late sunlight, framed the town of Laguardia laying across the crest of a high swelling in the landscape, with dramatic mountains as a backdrop.  It was a stunning sight, especially to my tired jet-lagged eyes. 

Laguardia is a small walled town of about 1,500, in the Rioja Alavesa.  My destination was down one of the narrow cobbled streets where a challenging tasting of straight Tempranillo and Rioja blends with Tempranillo the lead component. 

The winemaker was an older man with the hands of someone who made wine without the help of modern technology or the need to learn English. 

Tasting red wine in the chill of an old cellar with dirt floors was enlightening.  We communicated by nods and little smiles.  The Tempranillo was young and fresh and loaded with fruit, not unlike a nouveau Beaujolais.  The blend was immediately more complex, with deep fruit and firm tannins.  There was a depth to the wine that I discovered was from the addition of Graciano. The wine was pure Spanish and true Rioja Alavesa.

After my visit, I wondered why it was suggested that I visit a small winery that didn't export to the United States.  My contact at Wines of Spain explained that the Tempranillos I tasted that afternoon in that chilly cellar in Laguardia were what traditional Rioja was all about.

There was no Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon in the Laguardia winery, but the simpatico relationship of those two varieties may have given rise to the expression, in Rioja and Ribera, that "Tempranillo is Spain's answer to Cabernet Sauvignon."  Perhaps, but some of the leading Ribera challengers to Vega Sicilia, like Dominio de Pingus and Hacienda Monasterio, believe that in Ribera, Tempranillo holds sway over Cabernet Sauvignon.

In Rioja and Ribera, the trend with Tempranillo is to make big rich wines, but to back off on oak aging.  In the past, extended aging for these two wines was the norm, especially in American oak.  Today, winemakers are moving more to French oak and being more selective with new or used barrels and aging regimens.

This lighter touch results in wines with more fruit and a softer mouth-feel. The benefit to the consumer is that the wines are ready to drink sooner, requiring less cellaring. Some Riberas buck the trend of shorter barrel aging, in favor of fuller oak tannins, probably from American oak, or longer barrel aging, or both.  

Harvesting Tempranillo

In neighboring Portugal, Tempranilo is known as Tinta Roriz, an essential component in the production of Port and still red blends. Modern wine making in the Douro and further south in Alentejo, where Tempranillo is called Aragonez, has managed to smooth the rough edges that Tinta Roriz sometimes gets, while highlighting its bright raspberry and mocha flavors.

Beyond Spain and Portugal, Tempranillo's struggles for recognition are pitted against local varieties and popular French grapes.  There are a few places of encouragement.  Argentina's Mendoza Valley is experiencing a growth spurt in Tempranillo plantings, competing with Malbec.  California and Australia have seen interest in Tempranillo increase in recent years. 

Prices for Tempranillo are all over the place, but mostly break out by place of production.  Ribera del Duero is generally the most expensive, with the majority of Riojas a little less. I found the range is about $13 to $55, with a few wines, like Vega Sicilia (Ribera) 2011 "Unico," $395 and Lopez Heredia 2001 Rioja Reserva, $100. The current vintage of the highly regarded Hacienda Monasterio Rioja tops the price range at $55, while a Crianza Rioja is priced at $15 and a Crianza Ribera $22.  

Prices for Tempranillo, whether varietal, Rioja, Ribera, are wide enough to fit any wine budget.  Pick up a bottle or two at your local wine shop, or better yet, go to Rioja this summer and drive out to Laguardia in laet afternoon when the clouds are gathering over the little town.


Next blog: France Series: Bordeaux

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