Thursday, March 7, 2024

The Temptation of Tempranillo

What would you say is Spain's most dominant red wine grape...Garnacha? Good guess, but the grape planted in more places is Tempranillo; a favorite for its lush texture, ripe aromas and flavors of blackberry and black cherry. 


Not for nothing is Tempranillo the most popular red wine grape in Spain. It's also the country's answer to Cabernet Sauvignon. Tempranillo is an alternative choice for folks who favor Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. 

Popular wine areas, like Rioja and Ribera del Duero, prefer Tempranillo as the base for their red wines. Tempranillo is also the main red grape in many other regions of Spain, like Toro, Catalonia, Navarra, La Mancha, Costers del Segre and Somantano.  

Throughout Spain, growers and winemakers identify Tempranillo by different names.  In Ribera del Duero, it's called Tinto Fino; in La Mancha, Cencibel; Tinto Toro in Toro; and in Catalonia, Tempranillo is known as Ull del Liebre. Neighboring Portugal has yet another name for Tempranillo: Tinta Roriz, a main component of  Port. 

I digress briefly to bring back Garnacha (Grenache), a red wine grape whose popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, although not so much in Spain, due to a government mandated vine pull.  

Long known as the variety that adds the oomph to Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape in France; in Spain, Garnacha shares a lot of the same aromatics and flavors found in Tempranillo: deep color, bright strawberry/cherry flavors, moderate tannin, good acidity.  

By 2021 Tempranillo had secured its dominance over Garnacha, due mainly to the grape's thick skin, dark color and the promise of longevity. In recent years, that promise has been realized in the long lived wines of Ribera del Duero, Toro, Navarra and in the best Rioja, like Muga, Martinez Bujanda and Campo Viejo.


 Ribera del Duero

For years, Rioja was the standard bearer for Spanish red wines. Then, in the late 1980s, the striking red wines of Ribera del Duero hit U.S. markets with a loud bang. Ribera Tempranillos offered more than Rioja: bigger and riper, but with finesse and the potential for longer aging. Wineries in Ribera had been making this style of Tempranillo for years, but it was new to American fans of Spanish red wine.

The region lies along the Duero river in central Spain. Originating in Spain, the Duero flows downhill, entering Portugal through the narrow Douro valley, site of Port production, eventually emptying into the Atlantic, just past Oporto. Along its way, the Duero/Douro, flows past many wine regions, including Ribera del Duero.

Well-heeled, in-the-know collectors, were already familiar with Vega Sicilia, the iconic Ribera wine first made in the 1860s, and then refined in 1927 to the wine we know today, made in three styles from Tinta del Pais (aka Tinto Fino), a strain of Tempranillo. 

More than 130 years ago (yes, you read that right), Vega Sicilia introduced Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot to the region, to provide support for Tinta del Pais. For years, Vega Sicilia held its lofty place as the top Ribera wine.

Then, in the 1980s, the late Alejandro Fermandez released Pesquera to international acclaim. The Ribera juggernaut was loose, with wineries that had been selling mainly to cooperatives, now were marketing Ribera del Duero.  The wine takes its name from the village Pesquera del Duero and is not far from Vega Sicilia.

Noted Ribera wines to consider: Antidoto, Prado Rey, Vega Sicilia, Pesquera, Arzuaga, Dominio de Pingus, Bodegas la Horra, Dominio del Aquila.  Most Ribera wines range in price from $25 to $40, with some reaching $350 and Vega Sicilia Unico, scaling the lofty heights of $1,350.



Before Ribera took off, Tempranillo and Garnacha got together to form the base for Rioja red wines.  The name of Spain's leading wine region is a mash up of Rio (river) and Oja, a tributary of the river Ebro.

The key to understanding Rioja wine is the belief by Riojans that aging in barrel is a stronger indicator of Rioja red wine quality than fermentation -- the reverse of that practice in most other wine regions.  

By regulation, Rioja Crianza and Reserva must spend at least one year in oak, usually American, although interest in French oak is growing. Gran Reserva must age in oak a minimum of two years, plus two more years in bottle. A third category, Joven, is unoaked red.

The best vineyards in La Rioja are in Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta, around the villages of Laguardia, Haro, Fuenmayor and San Vicente.  The climate there is continental, without the extremes in other places. Soil composition is mainly clay over limestone, while in Rioja Baja, the broadest place in the valley, there is alluvial soils with river silt and the wines are more common.

Wine making in Rioja follows the traditional methods employed elsewhere. Barrel fermentation for whites was common until the 1970s, then most wineries switched to tank fermentation, but in recent years, some wineries have switched back. Resistance to official requirements about such practices as barrel aging has picked up in Spain, mirroring a mini-trend felt elsewhere in places like Italy. 

Here are some noted Rioja producers: Muga, La Rioja Alta, Miguel Merino, Vine Real, CVNE, Marques de Murrieta, Pedro Martinez, Sierra Cantabria.  Expect to pay $25 to $35 for most Rioja.

Tempranillo is considered a workhorse red grape in many parts of Spain, and this hard working grape produces some of Spain's best red wines.

Next blog: Napa & Sonoma Chardonnay

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