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Tempting Tempranillo
By Gerald D. Boyd
Jul 12, 2011
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Tempting is a satisfying way to describe Tempranillo, the most widely planted red wine grape in Spain.  Today’s wine consumer is finding Tempranillo especially tempting for its plentiful fruit, firm structure, deep color and perhaps most appealing, relative low alcohol, especially when compared to the wide range of other high-octane red wines crowding the market.

Like Syrah, Tempranillo easily bridges the gap between red wines noted for having firm structure like Cabernet Sauvignon and those offering luscious fruit like Pinot Noir.  Based on differences in terroir and vineyard practices, Tempranillo has developed red fruit aromas and flavors, brisk acidity and good structure and backbone.  Young 100% Tempranillo (jovenes in Spain) is packed with ripe red berry aromas and summer fruit salad flavors.  With age, Spanish Tempranillo develops more depth and raisiny cinnamon-spice flavors.

An early ripening variety (temprano means early in Spanish), Tempranillo is the backbone of Spain’s major red wines from Rioja to Ribera del Duero and is planted in nearly all of Spain’s major wine regions although the ubiquitous Tempranillo is known by many names.  Unless you have a grape score card, keeping track of Tempranillo’s synonyms can be confusing.  In Rioja, the grape goes by its varietal name, while not far away in Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo is called Tinta del Pais and sometimes Tinto Fino.  Further west, in Toro, Tempranillo changes names again to Tinto de Toro.  In the Catalonia sub region of Penedes, Tempranillo is known as Ull de Liebre, although in Priorato, Catalonia’s hot spot for big reds, the main red grape is Garnacha (Grenache in French) rather than Tempranillo.  And if that’s not confusing enough, Tempranillo is known as Cencibel in Valdepenas, and elsewhere as Tinto Madrid and Tinto de la Rioja. 

Spain may be where Tempranillo got it’s initial push onto the world wine stage, but in recent years, the grape has generated interest in such far-flung places as California, Australia, France (yes, France) and Oregon.  The one place you might not expect Tempranillo to make an appearance is Portugal.  The small, forward-thinking country that shares the Iberian Peninsula with Spain has long maintained a tradition of holding only to native grape varieties.  In the mid 19th century, with the rising threat of phylloxera in Spain, Tempranillo plantings were likely carried across the frontier into Portugal (a sort of 19th century “suitcase” import) and once again, the grape was renamed, this time to Tinta Roriz.   

So, with all this grape name diversity, can Tempranillo be stretched in enough directions to develop stylistic differences?  The question is not easily answered, but perhaps a brief look at a few of the more popular Spanish Tempranillo styles may offer some clarity.  

Rioja is Spain’s premier red wine region, with Tempranillo the most widely planted red variety.  Popularly called the “Cabernet of Spain,” Tempranillo is very strong in the Rioja sub regions of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, while the concentration in the Rioja Baja is more on Garnacha.  Tempranillo from Alavesa is lighter and more elegant in structure, while Rioja Alta Tempranillo tends to be heavier and more forward.  Pure Tempranillo is not uncommon in Rioja but the standard is a blend of 70% Tempranillo, with other varietals such as Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo filling out the balance.  Notable Rioja bodegas include Martinez Bujanda, LAN, Olarra, CVNE, Marques de Riscal, Muga, Montecillo and Campo Viejo.

Sandwiched between north-central Spain and the coastal region of Galicia is the vast region of Old Castile, resting atop Portugal and spreading eastward across the top of Spain to the border with France.  The most noteworthy expression of Tempranillo in Old Castile comes from Ribera del Duero.  Many high elevation vineyards in Ribera del Deuro, some up to 2,600 feet, benefit from the big diurnal shift from hot summer days, often 100-plus degrees to a sharp drop off of twenty or more degrees at night.  Ribera del Duero Tinta del Pais (Tempranillo),  mainly matured in a combination of American and French oak, is dense and bold with deep berry, vanilla and spice notes.  The list of noted Ribera del Duero bodegas is long, including Vega Sicilia, Pesquera, Monasterio, Antonio Barcelo, Senorio de Nava and Protos, plus three single estate wines known as Pagos that were approved in 2003.

Spain’s energetic entry into the international wine market has been ambitious, especially from new regions like Toro, Priorato, Rueda, Jumilla, Yecla and Monsant, most of which base their red wines on Tempranillo or blend it with other complimentary varietals.  Although red wine is fueling most of the growth, Spanish white wines, like Albariño, are gaining interest.  In the New World, Grenache, Mourvédre and Carignan (known respectively in Spain as Garnacha, Monastrell and Cariñena), have had some success, but it is Tempranillo that is sparking the major growth.

Tempranillo has not yet established a strong presence in California, with a few small plantings in place by the 1990s.  Stevenot winery in the Sierra Foothills might be considered a Tempranillo pioneer, since Chuck Hovey, winemaker for Stevenot fermented his first Tempranillo for Barden Stevenot in 1998.  “We planted the first Tempranillo at the Rolleri Vineyard in Calaveras County in 1994,” recalls Hovey.  “I would like to say that we had a vision regarding Spanish varietals in the Sierra Foothills but in the 1990s there was a huge amount of planting and replanting due to phylloxera and growth in the wine market.”  Hovey began an extensive search to locate the grapes he wanted, but settled for enough Tempranillo to plant two acres in the Rolleri family vineyard.  He has now made four vintages of Tempranillo from the Rolleri Vineyard for his Hovey Wines. 

Hovey was winemaker at Stevenot from 1983 to 2007, then left to start his own eponymous wine brand, but is now back as winemaker at Stevenot.  Since 1989 he has packed in a lot of experience with Tempranillo.  “The conditions for growing Tempranillo in the Sierra Foothills are great, with very warm days and cool evenings and very low humidity.”  Hovey describes Foothills Tempranillo as “having lots of blueberry/tobacco leaf/leathery flavors.”  Other California wineries producing Tempranillo include Frogs Tooth, Twisted Oak, Hatcher and Bodega del Sur. 

Warm weather brings winter-shy wine drinkers out of hibernation, thirsty for light-to-moderately full red wines to enjoy with summer grills.  Tempranillo is a good choice, whether from the wide range of tempting Tempranillos from Spain or the more limited variety from California.

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Comments?  Questions?  E-mail me at gboyd@winereviewonline.com