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Tempranillo, Spain’s Noble Grape

Tempranillo is Spain’s quintessential, indigenous “Noble Grape”. Jancis Robinson says in the “Oxford Companion to Wine”, that it is “Spain’s answer to Cabernet Sauvignon, while John Radford writes in his wonderful “The New Spain” Spanish wine guide, that “research indicates a possible common ancestor with Pinot Noir.” What the experts do agree on, however, is that it is a “classic” quality grape variety, and responsible for making some of Spain’s Best wines. It’s a thick-skinned black grape used to make full-bodied red wines. Tempranillo responds sublimely to delicate integration of American and French oak, producing deep colored smooth, elegant wines capable of long aging, with sensuous notes of vanilla, cedar and soft spice. It is also ideal for making young wines, “jovenes”, where the grape imparts juicy strawberry and summer fruits flavours. The term “Tempranillo” is named after the Spanish word “Temprano”, for “early”, referring to the fact that this grape ripens sooner than the other traditional varietals in Spain (2 weeks earlier than Garnacha, for example).

It’s most famous expression is in the rich, velvety red wines of La Rioja, where it is mostly blended with Garnacha Tinta, Mazuelo and Graciano and aged in oak barricas. For some expensive and sophisticated modern Riojas, it is being blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. However, as Cabernet Sauvignon is prohibited in the Appellation (The DOc), it can’t be mentioned on the bottle label. In Navarra, where such restrictions don’t apply, it is enthusiastically and eloquently blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Excellent examples include Guelbenzu’s “Lautus Crianza” which is comprised of 50% Tempranillo, 30% Merlot, 10% Cab Sauv, 10% Garnacha, and aged for12 months in French oak.

Unlike other classic grape varieties, like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo has a bewildering array of aliases around Spain’s wine regions. In La Rioja, Navarra, Somontano (in the Pyrenees) and the Levante (south eastern Murcia and Valencia), it is known by its international name, “Tempranillo”. However, it is also called “Cencibel” in La Mancha and Valdepeñas (south of Madrid); “Ull de Llebre” (eye of the hare) in Catalonia; “Tinta de País” or “Tinto Fino” in Ribera del Duero; “Tinta de Toro” in Toro; and completely lacking in imagination, it is called Tinto de Madrid”
for…you guess. Tempranillo is used in quality winemaking outside Spain, in Portugal (where it is known as Tinta Roriz in the Douro, and is a principal component of Port and as “Aragonêz” in the Alentejo region east of Lisbon) and extensively in Argentina and Mexico. Finally, just to add more confusion, Tempranillo is grown in California by wineries for grape juice, and is called Valdepeñas!

The names of grape varieties have, until recently, never featured prominently on Spanish wine bottles. As in France, where the bottle of Sancerre does not say “Sauvignon Blanc”, the names of the varietals were not of great interest to the consumer. However, as wine consumers have become more knowledgeable about what wines they like, the indication of grape variety has increased in commercial importance. With the onslaught of excellent quality, value for money, single and multi varietal branded wines from the “new world” (mainly Australia, Chile and California), the “old world” seems to have taken the attitude “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. You can now readily find Spanish wine bottles labelled “Chardonnay, Tempranillo, etc” (particularly from progressive Navarra and Catalonia).

Try these wonderful examples of Tempranillo:

Marqués de Riscal, Reserva, 1998Marqués de Riscal, Reserva, 1998, Doc La Rioja: Classic Rioja from the most classic bodega of them all, Riscal, founded in 1860. No surprises here, consistent quality, frankly too easy to drink! Made from 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano and Mazuelo. 24 months in oak and extended period in bottle, result in a soft yet complex wine, which is equally nice either with food or on its own.

Finca Antigua, Tempranillo, 2001, DO La Mancha: New wave wine, made in a very “new world” style (and branding) by the famed Martinez Bujanda family of La Rioja (Conde de Valdemar, Finca Valpiedra) in a stunning new winery. This winery is causing a colossal change in the region of La Mancha, which has always been known for being a wine region of quantity (bulk), rather than quality. The Bujanda family have invested millions on this new venture and the results are starting to pay off. This Tempranillo is lovely, soft, with strawberries on the nose, and luscious on the palate. Made with 100% Tempranillo from 15 year old vines with 6 months in new American oak.

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