Updated: Nov 27, 2020
The great Spanish grape first appeared somewhere between Navarra and Rioja and did not receive much attention outside the Iberian Peninsula until the 1990’s… or rather, only few people knew they were drinking Tempranillo when they tasted some of the best wines of Spain either from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Toro, Valdepeñas or even in their Port wine.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of notoriety is that Tempranillo hides behind different names: Tinta Roriz and Aragonez in Portugal, Malvasia Nera in Italy, Ull de Llebre in Penedés, Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero, Cencibel in Valdepeñas and Tinto de Madrid, Tinto de la Rioja, Tinta del Pais, Tinta de Toro in other regions... and there are 552 different clones of it!
Tempranillo is also made as single varietal wines and in blends. In Rioja, it is often blended with Garnacha for the similar reasons which Cabernet is blended with Merlot in Bordeaux: Tempranillo brings acidity and tannin structure to the thin-skinned sweet & generously fruity Grenache, and can be supplemented by Graciano (Morrastrel) and Mazuelo (Carignan).
Tempranillo might give quite different expressions, depending on yield, climate, winemaking and maturation. The name “Tempranillo” is derived from the Spanish word “temprano” which means early - certainly because it does ripen early. Tempranillo also buds late, which makes it suitable for the cooler and most continental zones of Spain. Like every grape, it needs cool to develop aromatic elegance & bright acidity and warmth to accumulate sugar, color and round tannins from thicker skin. These two factors are most extreme in the Ribera del Duero: There, continentality and altitude mean hot days and cool night, which give flavors ranging from black fruit to savory notes balanced by high acidity and tannins and more or less oak depending on the choice of the winemaker.
Over-cropped on some irrigated valley floors of Argentina, it can yield 200 hl per ha and makes cheap and cheerful reds. When production is restricted below 49 hl per ha (that is 1 or 2 kg per plant) in low density planting (2-3000 vines/ ha) “en vaso”, it gives much more concentrated flavors.
From the light red and black fruit scented (sometimes undergoing carbonic maceration) unoaked Joven categories to the increasingly oak-matured Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, the wines suck vanilla from new barrels and may develop flavors of plum, prune, savoriness, tobacco, cocoa and leather with age.
From its Spanish homeland it crossed over to Portugal and was brought by the Spaniards to Mexico and Argentina. It even grows in Tuscany & Basilicata!. More recently it’s been planted in California, Oregon, Washington State, Australia and New Zealand.
To explore the grape, you might try wines from Telmo Rodrigez, Bodegas Vega Sicilia, Marqués de Murrieta, Remelluri, Olivier Rivière, Muga Bodegas Alejandro Fernandez, Bodegas Alion, O. Fournier or Pingus.
For more information on grape varieties, where they grow and how they taste, enroll the next WSET Level 2 Award in Wines.
Clarke, O. & Rand, M. (2015) Grapes & Wines. New York: Sterling Epicure
Robinson, J. (2015) The Oxford Companion to Wine.New York: Oxford University Press Inc