THE SECRET INGREDIENT in Rioja and an array of Iberian reds, Tempranillo is widely grown throughout the peninsula, especially the north. Voraciously displacing Garnacha, Bobal and Monastrell as consumers have come to know and love it, it has become Spain’s most-planted variety. The New World – Australia and California particularly – grows a fair bit. Spanish producers have of late aped their overseas counterparts by placing the word Tempranillo prominently on the front label, alongside the regional name.
Viticulturally, Tempranillo both buds and ripens early (the name means “early little one”), a useful habit in Rioja, where the growing season isn’t long. Its precocious budding makes it vulnerable to spring frosts, however. Like many grapes, it prefers limestone soils. Its thick-skinned berries give wines of very deep colour. The alcohol rarely gets too high, even in warmer spots, and acidity is never excessive.
Tempranillo has a long association with oak barrels, often American but these days as likely to be French. In fact it is not naturally as aromatically expressive as many other grapes, and much of its attractive organoleptic character stems from its seasoning in wood.
A versatile fellow, Tempranillo can make light, young berryish reds (often indicated with Joven or Crianza) as well as more ageworthy, oaked offerings (Reserva, Gran Reserva) with a patina of vanilla, liquorice and tobacco overlaying the fruit notes. Often bottled on its own, it is also commonly blended with Garnacha, Mazuelo (Carignan), Cabernet, Merlot and others.
It isn’t unusual for a wine grape to trade under different names but Tempranillo stands out for the number of commonly-used synonyms it employs. These include Tinta de Toro (used in Toro), Tinta del Pais (Duero), Tinto Fino (widespread), Ull de Llebre (Catalonia), Cencibel (La Mancha) and Aragonez / Tinta Roriz in Portugal.
Por Dios! Let’s just stick with Tempranillo.
Five to try
Promesa Tempranillo 2012 (Jumilla)
Made in a youthful, light style, this stainless-steel fermented Tempranillo shows attractive red fruit aromas, with a juicy palate of cherry, spice and plum. Easy going tannins and a fresh finish. Chill lightly and enjoy on its own or with canapés.
La Hoja Rioja Alavesa 2012 (Rioja)
Vibrant and vivacious, with lifted aromas of cool raspberries, kirsch and violet. Silky, lithe palate with clean acidity, medium weight and pure, berry-fruit flavours. Superb example of un-wooded Rioja! Try with grilled lamb chops and chilli jam.
Eduardo Bermejo Tinto 2010 (Valencia)
Winemaker Toni Arraez, who trained in swanky Ribera del Duero, has crafted a voluptuous, round wine from old, bush-trained Tempranillo vines in the hot, arid Levante. Lush flavours of raspberry pie abound!
Lar de Paula Rioja Crianza 2009 (Rioja)
“A lifted mulberry, sloe and bay leaf scented bouquet with a dash of white pepper. Well-balanced, with a rounded, sensual finish that offers touches of pepper and burnt toast. This is a very fine Crianza.” – Neal Martin, The Wine Advocate.
Finca Muñoz Cepas Viejas 2009 (Castilla)
From 100 year-old vines, a plush and rewarding Tempranillo that is matured for 12 months in new oak barrels. Savoury, complex and reminiscent of black cherry liqueur, leather, muscovado and bay. Polished, suave tannins and a luscious, decadent mouthfeel. Decant for an hour and enjoy with Beef Wellington.
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